Drug Problems Persist in Civic Center

Tony Whitaker spends his days sifting through the grass at the Civic Center Plaza with a pair of trash tongs, blue latex gloves, a trashcan and a red biohazard disposal box in search of discarded hypodermic needles. The full-time Department of Recreation and Parks employee spends five days a week picking up trash and other hazardous materials from various parks throughout the city but finds more needles in the Civic Center then anywhere else.

“There are several parks I take care of, but I find significantly more needles at the Civic Center than the other parks I tend to,” Whitaker said as he sifted through the grass with his trash tongs outside the new Helen Diller Park at the Civic Center Plaza. “I have to rake the grass because children play out here and it’s where I find most of the needles, about 30 a day.”

The city has taken many approaches to combat the issue of discarded hypodermic needles in public areas but has yet to find a tangible solution that works. Needle disposal drop boxes are located throughout the neighborhood as well as at the Bart station entrance, but Whitaker says these attempts do little to keep the streets clean.

“I personally go out of my way and leave two or three red biohazard boxes out, and when I come back to collect them I find the syringes scattered all over the ground,” he said.

While violent crime statistics are reported to be lower in the Civic Center this year, according to the SF Controller’s 2016 Street and Sidewalk Maintenance Standards report, San Francisco has experienced a 41 percent increase in hypodermic needles on the city’s sidewalks and streets.

The study found 3,551 needles citywide during the 2016 fiscal year, an increase of 1,024 needles from 2015. Despite the city’s attempts to curb this problem, the issue continues to persist especially in the Civic Center which is characterized as a “needle hotspot.”

Local law enforcement agencies and non-profits alike have tried to tackle this challenge albeit with different approaches. The neighborhood community benefit district has been working to combat this issue since its inception in 2012. The Civic Center Community Benefit District has a dispatch hotline which is open to call seven days a week and a response team consisting of neighborhood ambassadors who clean and discard any hazardous items.

“Needles have been an issue for a long time and we’ve been dealing with discarded syringes since we began operations in 2012,” said Executive Director Donald Savoie of the Civic Center Community Benefit District. “Our ambassadors are trained in everything from police codes to public health related matters, and they always carry the necessary materials to safely discard needles and other hazardous materials within the Civic Center neighborhood.”

Savoie also explained some changes the city has made to control the needle issue with respects to the enclosed public bathroom units located on Hyde and Grove as well as in front of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

“The enclosed bathroom units were once used for anything from sex to drug use and were really trashed and disgusting,” he said. “They’re now staffed full-time to ensure they are used only to go to the restroom, and they also have a needle disposal drop box located outside the bathrooms for those who want to discard used syringes.”

The full-time workers who monitor the enclosed bathroom units are Department of Public Health employees and supervise the bathrooms seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. They are trained to safely discard used syringes and have on hand all the required items to do so.

The San Francisco Public Library has worked on this issue as well and has collaborated with the Department of Public Health in many ways to decrease the amount of discarded needles in the area and around the premises of the main library which is located on Larkin Street right at the edge of the Civic Center Plaza.

The library currently has on staff DPH workers who patrol the perimeter of the library for discarded needles as well as a full-time social worker, a social safety aide and a police officer who leads their security unit.

“We have a team of individuals comprised of DPH workers, social workers and a social safety aide many who are trained to administer life-saving medicines to those who are experiencing drug overdoses,” said Katherine Jardine, the public relations officer for the San Francisco Public Library. “Our DPH workers are affiliated with the drug overdose prevention and education project (DOPE) and understand how to properly use Naloxone on anyone experiencing a heroin or opioid overdose.”

The library is considering the possibility of offering training to any library staff members who would want to volunteer and learn how to administer Naloxone to overdose victims, but the idea is still pending. Naloxone is a drug known to reverse the effects of heroin overdoses and is also commonly referred to by its brand name Narcan.

The Bart police have taken a different approach and are enforcing the law to stop drug behaviors on public grounds. They recently carried out a 3-day sting operation in an attempt to crack down on public drug use in the Civic Center Bart station. The operation included plainclothes police officers and BART’s Critical Assessment Protection team and resulted in 27 arrests for drug use in public.

“We want to send a clear message that drug use at our stations will not be tolerated,” acting Police Chief Jeff Jennings said in a press release. “This illegal activity impacts our riders and employees as the users leave behind hazardous items.”

The district attorney is said to be bringing strong charges against the individuals arrested in the 3-day sting, and a joint operation between BART police and the San Francisco Police Department are in the works.

Leane Debono, a homeless man who resides in the Civic Center, doesn’t feel as though these arrests will do much to prevent drug use in public places.

“People using in public has gotten a lot better in recent years, but arresting people and throwing them in jail isn’t going to stop it,” he said while waiting for the public library to open. “The police and everyone else around here don’t really care what goes on. They may have put drop boxes around, but there’s no real incentive to change the way it is down here. You can shoot up on any street corner around here and no-one does anything about it.”

While it may appear that no-one cares, the demographic of those living in this neighborhood is changing quickly, and the new residents may be the driving force for this attempt at change.

San Francisco’s Civic Center and Mid-Market neighborhoods are transitioning areas within the city. These once well-known crime-ridden areas now house luxury apartments and sprawling food courts that cater to the city’s top earners.

New restaurants and gastropubs now line Market Street and construction sites can be seen on nearly every street corner. A new $10 million park is currently being assembled in the Civic Center Plaza, and a handful of high rise apartment complexes are currently being built on Market.

Even with all this transformation the one thing that hasn’t changed is the open display of drug use on the neighborhood streets and plazas. It may not be a new reality, but discarded needles and drug use in public are issues that are getting increased attention from city officials and the community alike. It will take time to see if these new approaches to combatting drug use in public will produce positive effects, but the city and other organizations don’t appear deterred from trying everything they can to clean up the streets in the Civic Center.

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Closing Arguments Presented on Homeless Man’s Lewd Conduct

The closing arguments began today for a trial involving a homeless man who was arrested for masturbating in public and resisting arrest. The assistant district attorney along with defense attorneys spent most of the morning exchanging arguments in an attempt to convince the jury of each’s analysis.

The defendant, Michael Matthews, sat before the court with his head down for most of the morning as the prosecution started their closing arguments. An Dang, the assistant district attorney assigned to the case, began by providing the jury with the legal definition of lewd intent. She went on to outline how the crime Matthews committed involved lewd conduct.

“He chose to take his penis out that day even after being told to stop by the officers,” Dang said, as she flipped through a powerpoint presentation which described the components of intentional lewd conduct. “If you are forcing someone to view this private and sexual act then the activity by law becomes a lewd act.”

The emphasis on intent became a focal point for both legal councils, because the charges brought against Matthews, indecent exposure and resisting arrest, constitutes the most serious misdemeanor someone can be charged with. This is essentially a charge that will label him as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

“The intent element needs to be looked at differently from how the prosecution has presented it,” said Kathleen Natividad, deputy public defender, and legal council for Matthews. “He didn’t know whether the library was open or closed, whether people were inside or even what day it was.”

Natividad’s goal was to show the jury that Matthews was unaware of how public his environment was as well as the inappropriate nature of his actions. She focused on complicating the prosecution’s definition of lewd intent.

“He was outside a closed library, looking down at a Playboy magazine, with his hands in his pants and eyes half shut,” Natividad said. “We are describing criminalized conduct, but that’s not what’s being charged here.”

The prosecution framed their description of lewd intent as an act that refers to the state of mind an individual is in when any particular action is performed. Dang argued that because he chose to masturbate that morning, because he continued his actions even after being told to stop and because the action was done in a public place, the courtyard outside the Marina district’s public library, Matthews was deliberate in disturbing those around him.

“It is undisputed that the defendant exposed his penis to others willingly and refused to stop when being told to do so,” said Dang. “This is how we know circumstantially that he intended to disturb those around him.”

The defense interjected whenever possible to dispute the allegations that were being made by the prosecution, and after a series of objections and rebuttals by both councils the court adjourned to resume proceedings the next day.

Senior Citizen Cited for Eating Pizza at Bus Stop

A senior citizen was issued a citation for eating a slice of pizza at a bus stop near Market and 7th, according to a tweet posted by Kelly Cutler, a human rights organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness.

The man was issued a quality-of-life citation for, “eating or drinking in or on a system facility or vehicle in areas where those activities are prohibited,” according to a photo of the citation Cutler tweeted out.

The ticket prompted frustration among homeless advocates, and a protest urging San Franciscans to eat pizza at local bus stops was mobilized this weekend, according to Shaun Osborne, a San Francisco State University communications major and the event organizer.

“After seeing the citation the elderly homeless man had received for eating pizza at a bus stop, I reflected on the number of times I had done the same without incident,” said the senior communications major. “I quickly created an online event page and meme with a call to eat pizza at a bus shelter on April 7th and #LegalizePizza was born.”

The event page on Facebook indicated 90 people were attending the protest with an additional 100 people interested.

“I conceptually organized it with the intention of empowering people to hold their own protest at a time and location that was convenient to them,” said Osborne.

The Facebook event page encouraged individuals to exercise their civil disobedience by eating a slice of pizza at a local bus shelter and photographing themselves doing so. The goal of the protest was to highlight certain types of citations that often target the homeless community, according to Osborne.

“Citations such as this are far too often levied on poor and homeless people who do not have the resources to pay or fight them,” he said. “Issuing them is a waste of taxpayer money and serve only to further hurt already struggling people.”

An update to the Facebook page addressed as an apparent influx of donations wanting to be made on behalf of the senior citizen and stated the Coalition on Homelessness has already dealt with the citation.

A Young Democrat Representing California Businesses

The Democratic Party was left in disarray last November after an upsetting loss to Donald Trump for the presidency. The tactics that helped elect Barack Obama for two terms didn’t work this time around, and the party was left wondering what direction it must take.

While speaking on MSNBC’s Morning Joe last month, Democrat Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont and chair of the DNC explained, “Our strongest age group that votes for us is under 35, and they don’t consider themselves Democrats.” He went on to say, “Our leadership is old and creaky, and we need to get new blood in there.”

People like Noah Starr, 26-year-old senior district liaison to chairwoman Fiona Ma of the California State Board of Equalization, is the new blood Dean is referring to. The Laguna Beach native has always had an interest in politics and decided to spend his college career at the University of San Francisco where in 2012 he received a bachelor’s degree in political science. Starr then made his way to east coast where he completed a graduate certificate program in political psychology at George Washington University.

The Jesuit based education at USF requires a lot of service learning when majoring in political science; so Starr was able to get course credits for a variety of internships while also building relationships in the field.

His desire to work in politics landed him a job as a field worker for Senator Scott Wiener’s 2016 state senate campaign, and After a successful campaign under state Senator Wiener, Starr landed himself a senior position at the Board of Equalization.

While his office is located in the heart of the Civic Center, the district he oversees spans from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, and he spends most of his time going to events throughout the state informing businesses on any matters related to regulatory tax policy.

“Our goal is to make sure no business feels left out of the democratic process and that any questions they have regarding tax policies get answered,” said Starr. “It’s a positive for everyone if our businesses understand the nuances that relate to tax regulations and policies.”

According to Politifact, California is the world’s 6th largest economy. With state revenues coming from tourism and agriculture production to the tech industry, it is increasingly important for businesses in the state to follow the ever-changing tax code. It is also important that all taxpayers, regardless of their political beliefs, feel confident that the questions they have are being taken seriously.

“Noah is an excellent communicator and can connect with everyone across all political spectrums,” said Victor Ruiz-Cornejo, deputy district director for state Senator Scott Wiener and former field worker for state Senator Wiener’s campaign. “He’s able to put his political views aside to ensure trust and confidence from his constituents”

Starr’s role as senior district liaison means he must engage with taxpayers that may be located outside the city and don’t necessarily share San Francisco’s political worldview. While California voted overwhelmingly for Hilary Clinton and historically identifies as a blue state, the growing rift between Democrats and Republicans in California has become increasingly apparent.

All one must do to see this divide is drive through central California. “Congress created dust bowl” signs and “Make America Great” slogans are littered up and down Interstate 5.

“We represent a lot of small businesses in rural parts of California, and it’s my job to make sure these people feel adequately informed and represented,” said Starr. “Party politics isn’t important when ensuring tax codes are followed correctly because both sides of the aisle benefit when the state’s businesses are appropriately informed.”

Having an open mind and a willingness to engage with taxpayers that don’t share the same ideologies appears to be a successful strategy in winning support, and one Starr has become well versed in.

While he doesn’t express his political views to those he speaks with, he believes the challenges our state faces if there were to be federal budget cuts may sway individuals to the other side of the aisle who don’t currently see eye to eye with Democrats.

“It’s important to keep the Democratic Party as a super majority in both houses of the legislature here in California as well as the governorship,” said Starr, as he described potential budget cut challenges. “We need to be able to properly allocate tax revenues to provide necessary services that Republicans just don’t agree with.”

These services could include increased assistance to underprivileged families and natural disaster cleanups. If the Democratic Party wants to appeal to younger voters and disenfranchised citizens, Starr and others like him may be the ones to lead that movement.

San Francisco Strips Down for the 8th Annual Naked Bike Ride

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A congregation of naked men gathered at the Embarcadero to mark the 8th annual world naked bike riding event as part of an international rally to protest against the world’s dependency on fossil fuels.

The clothing-optional event, which takes place in 70 cities around the globe, aims not only at protesting society’s dependency on oil but also on promoting bike riding as a main mode of transportation with nudity expressing bikers vulnerability, according to the event website.

George Davis, the self-proclaimed “naked yoga guy” who ran for mayor in 2007 and San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2010, was one of the first participants to arrive at the Ferry Building wearing nothing but an orange Hawaiian lei draped around his neck and a black fanny pack wrapped around his bare waist.

“I’ve done this for 10 years now and usually participate in about two events a year,” he said as bystanders gathered around the group snapping photos. “I don’t own a car and think there needs to be more of a conversation around the weird economic games that are played on oil.”

Aside from protesting society’s dependency on oil, the riders also hope the event will encourage an improved bike infrastructure throughout San Francisco.

“It’s not like we hate cars or people who drive them; we just want to get people out on their bikes and make a statement,” Jeff Oswald, the event organizer, said as he stood stark naked smoking a Marlboro 27. “We understand we’re not going to make cars go away, but we want to assimilate people and improve the bike routes throughout the city.”

The event, which was first held in 2004, has drawn fewer participants every year due to the city’s anti-nudity ordinance that was passed in 2012, but according to the event Facebook page, previous rides have had large showings. That was not the case this year with roughly 15 men and 2 women showing up for the ride.

“It’s a little bit harder to get into it here in San Francisco because of the anti-nudity ordinance,” said Tom Drum, a three-year resident of San Francisco who wore only a pink baseball cap and knee-high socks for the ride. “This is my first time biking in San Francisco’s naked bike ride but I’ve ridden in Portland’s where there’s usually 1,000 people who show up. When there’s a more welcoming environment you generally have more people who are willing to participate.”

Portland’s nude bike riding event also takes place at night, which Drum said makes the environment more inviting and less overt.

“It happens once a year in Portland and at night so there are many, many people who get involved and it completely shuts the city down,” he said.

The ride kicked off at noon and led riders from the Ferry Building down the Embarcadero, up through Fisherman’s Wharf, over to Haight Street and back down toward the Castro where the route ends. This is the first naked bike ride of the year for San Francisco with the second happening in June.

San Francisco’s Natural Areas to be Redeveloped

A controversial environmental maintenance program, which aims to cut down roughly 18,000 trees over the next 20 years, was confirmed by the Board of Supervisors leaving outdoor enthusiasts, dog walkers, and residents upset and disgruntled.

The plan will review the 32 natural resource areas in San Francisco and provide assessments on what needs to be done to maintain the overall health of these environments.

It was first developed in 2006 by the Department of Recreation and Parks but was appealed in Dec. 2015 by the San Francisco Forest Alliance, a nonprofit that views the maintenance plan’s environmental impact report as “inadequate, inaccurate and biased” according to Tom Borden, Director of the Forest Alliance.

“The goal is to have them completely redesign the plan,” said Eric Brooks, campaign coordinator for Our City San Francisco, a grassroots organization that connects families and communities to their elected representatives. “The best way to improve biodiversity is to have humans stop intervening and this EIR is essentially destroying the environment to save it.”

The destruction Brooks referred to is the use of herbicides that will contain the newly cut trees. Other concerns were potential storm water run off and off trail access areas. One of the most contentious aspects of the EIR was the proposal to cut down 3,500 non-native eucalyptus trees at Mt. Davidson and replace them with native shrubs and grassland.

“The eucalyptus trees have been up there for over 100 years,” said Magick Altman, a concerned resident who attended the meetings to voice her concerns. “They have fog drip that keeps the soil moist to prevent land erosion. There are hawks and birds as well as flora and fauna that are all beautiful.”

While the eucalyptus trees removal was viewed by many as invasive and unnecessary, Rec and Parks argued maintenance was imperative in order to keep a thriving and diverse native habitat in these natural areas.

“These are wild places that do not take care of themselves and without active management and maintenance these places will disappear,” said Phil Ginsberg, general manager of San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. “This plan offers a collection of science-based, best practices to care for our wild spaces.”

Supervisors Peskin, Sheehy, and Yee expressed concerns about these practices, primarily those regarding the use of carcinogenic pesticides like Roundup. Their questions focused on the fear of ground water contamination and storm drain runoff into residential neighborhoods. Lisa Wayne, Natural Areas Manager for Rec and Parks provided an analysis that explained the regulations that guide the department’s integrated pesticide management program.

“These regulations go through a very rigorous annual screening of the pesticides that city workers are allowed to use on city lands,” said Wayne. “We use thousands of volunteer hours and organic materials like bone meal to remove weeds, but there are circumstances where hand removal, mechanical removal, and alternative methods simply do not work and in those limited cases we use small amounts of herbicides.”

Wayne’s presentation, as well as testimony from various individuals in support of the Natural Resource Areas Management Plan ultimately swayed the Board to certify the planning commission’s final ERI on a 9-1 vote with Supervisor Yee dissenting.

The Neighborhood

cropped-n6a85092.jpgThe center of San Francisco’s downtown area rests at the heart of the Civic Center. San Francisco’s Civic Center and mid-Market neighborhood consist of various state and federal government buildings, museums, theaters and many new development projects. It is also a designated national historic landmark.

Some of the better-known attractions include the San Francisco Opera House, the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and the U.N. Plaza where the Treaty of San Francisco was signed in 1951 officially ending the war with Japan.

“It’s overall a great place to be in the city,” said Tony Casanova, a security guard with Treeline Private Security who monitors the lawn outside city hall. “You’ll defiantly see some homeless people, and occasionally they’ll be using drugs, but they’re good people for the most part.”

Like many other parts of San Francisco, the Civic Center acts as a cross road. It is an area where many of the cities homeless congregate while also being a place where several highly profitable companies have headquartered. The Twitter and Square card reader offices are located just a few blocks from each other.

While this area is known as the political and cultural epicenter of the city, these company headquarters, and newly built apartment buildings have made the Civic Center a place many of the cities new workforce calls home.

“The plaza and this area, in general, has always catered to government people, tourists, and entertainment enthusiasts,” said Donald Savoie, Executive Director for the Civic Center Community Benefit District. “With the new apartment complexes currently being planned on Market, we can expect to see all these buildings totally changed in the next 5 years.”

According to Savoie, two Walgreens are planned to close soon as well as the Honda dealership on Market and Van Ness. Each of these buildings is currently in the development phases, and have plans to be turned into high-rise apartment complexes.

One of the many community events that take place here is the Heart of the City Farmers Market, the only independent, non-profit, and farmer-operated, farmers market in San Francisco which can be found at U.N. Plaza every Sunday and Wednesday rain or shine.

Along with the farmers market, the Civic Center also acts as a convening space for many of the protests and events that go on throughout the year. The open area around city hall is frequently occupied for various community functions.

Keeping the lawn and surrounding areas clean and safe has been a priority for the neighborhood, and the Civic Center Community Benefit District, one of 14 community benefit districts in the city has taken the leading role. This has become especially important due to the influx of new residents and children in the area.

Some of the new efforts include needle disposal drop boxes, public bathrooms that are staffed full time for cleanliness, and community service ambassadors who patrol the neighborhood by foot. These ambassadors are trained to assist the public with anything from directions, to the cultural significance of the area, as well as acting as a deterrent for misdemeanor crimes.

When there are no protests or events taking place, the plaza in front of city hall is often filled with tourists snapping photos or the homeless sleeping in the grass or congregating in the corners. It’s not uncommon to see lawyers, politicians, tourists and the homeless alike all congregating on any given day at the Civic Center.