The San Francisco Chronicle reported last week that the city now has more hardcore drug addicts living there than it does high school students.

San Francisco has more drug addicts than it has students enrolled in its public high schools, the city Health Department’s latest estimates conclude.

There are about 24,500 injection drug users in San Francisco — that’s about 8,500 more people than the nearly 16,000 students enrolled in San Francisco Unified School District’s 15 high schools and illustrates the scope of the problem on the city’s streets…

“There is an opioid epidemic in this country, and San Francisco is no exception,” Deputy Director of Health Dr. Naveena Bobba said.

The problem is particularly visible in the Tenderloin, where police reported more than 600 arrests for drug dealing last year. And where 27 suspects were booked into County Jail for dealing drugs in the first 20 days of the new year.

The drug use is also directly tied to homelessness as people using heroin daily are not likely to have the time or energy to hold down a job or maintain a home. Most of the people shooting heroin in BART stations are doing it there because they have nowhere else to go. Last year there were local news reports about the extent of drug use at BART stations (see below). Those reports embarrassed the city and led to some effort to clean up the public areas, but it remains an uphill battle. Over time, the addicts wind up collapsed in a stupor inside the stations, on the streets, or on the trains themselves. In a piece published today, a reporter for the Chronicle describes his recent encounter with a homeless man on a BART train:

On Christmas Day, I got on a train at Rockridge Station. I walked to the other end of the car and saw an older man with a shaggy white beard sitting in a seat reserved for the elderly and disabled. He had a dirt-caked blanket draped over his legs, a mangled walker in front of him. He rubbed his forehead as he swayed. His lips moved, but nothing audible came out.

As I watched him, I caught a whiff — it was like opening the lid of a garbage can with week-old used diapers in it. Then I noticed the brownish fluid streaming on the floor underneath his seat. At MacArthur Station, people stepped over the liquid like they were hopping rain puddles.

“You’re disgusting,” one man shouted before pulling his sweater over his nose.

The author goes on to say that he didn’t call anyone or do anything for the man because he didn’t want to “unintentionally criminalize his situation.” And he reports that police won’t even respond in many situations like this:

BART can’t do anything for a simple hygiene complaint. A caller would have to be more descriptive. In my case, Trost said I would’ve had to tell police dispatch that there were bodily fluids that needed to be cleaned.

“If you just say there’s a homeless person or someone who appears to be homeless, they smell and they’re sleeping and they have a blanket and a walker, that is not enough,” Trost said. “We cannot send an officer. This person is not breaking any laws.”

People don’t want to criminalize the homeless, so they tolerate the open drug use and the drugged out people using the subway as a toilet. In fact, the city tries to protect the drug users from their own habit which is why it handed out over 50,000 clean needles last year. The city then pays a special team to travel around cleaning up the used needles. Meanwhile, police have tried to crack down on dealers but for every dealer arrested there are more ready to take his place.

I just keep coming back to the idea that this approach to hard drugs can only end in exactly the way it has in San Francisco and other cities like Portland and Seattle, i.e. lots of people camping out in public places because their entire energy in life is spent getting drugs. When I look at these people, my thought is that mandatory drug treatment would be better for many of them than letting them play Russian roulette with heroin every day. Because the nature of the addiction means that, if given a choice, this is how thousands of them are going to choose to live.