All posts by Sean McGrier

An Uncertain Move for San Francisco’s Sex Workers

Marion Pellegrini, core staff member at St. James Infirmary, poses for a portrait in the lab where he draws blood for various tests for patients. The clinic provides healthcare and social services for current and former sex workers of all genders and sexual orientations. Photo by Emma Chiang


By Sean McGrier

There’s no sign on the door. One has to be told about the place to know it’s there and, even then, they’d probably walk past it a few times before realizing they had reached their destination. The clinic is discrete; its whereabouts spread mostly through word of mouth. Its modest front door leaves little hint to what goes on beyond it. The work St. James Infirmary does for the community it serves is shielded to ensure that work can continue, which is partly due to the taboo nature of St. James’ clients’ jobs.

St. James is a peer-based health clinic for sex workers located on Mission Street in the South of Market neighborhood. Pretty much all of its staff and all of its patrons are either current or former sex workers – that is, they have either stripped, prostituted or done some job that falls under the “sex work” umbrella, if not a number of jobs involving erotica. The clinic also services the immediate families and primary sexual partners of sex workers. St. James is the only for-sex workers, by-sex workers free health clinic in the country.

But the clinic is moving, and its staff is not sure where. The SoMa building it has been in for the past 13 years of its 16-year-history is up for sale, and a new lease will not be granted. Moving an operation like St. James is a sensitive undertaking, one that poses big problems for the clinic, according to executive director Stephany Ashley.

“Across the city right now, private landlords are not too motivated to rent to non-profits,” Ashley said. “The real estate market right now is money, and most property owners that own commercial spaces in San Francisco are trying to see how much money they can make. Renting to a peer-based clinic that provides social support services for a community in poverty is not gonna make them a lot of money.”

The move also has St. James’ staff worried about client trepidation. Ashley said that’s because some of the clinic’s current visitors might not go to St. James if it moves to a different neighborhood.

“Here, we are right equidistant from Sixth Street and 16th Street,” Ashley said. “If you think about those two corridors, there’s a lot of folks that would access our services there. And this is a space that is accessible from those places. It’s close enough that you could walk here in 10 minutes, but also kind of far enough to where you could get a bit of distance from some of that.”

Dr. Pratima Gupta is St. James’ medical director. She started volunteering at the clinic while doing a fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco in 2005. Two years later, she stepped into the clinic’s medical director role, which is also a volunteer position. Dr. Gupta echoed Ashley’s unease about the move.

“In terms of our clients and the participants who receive our services, we’re seeing concern about the safety of some of the places we’re looking at,” Gupta said.

Proposed locations include spaces in the Tenderloin and Mid-Market neighborhoods, both of which have reputations, earned or unearned, for being dangerous. Neighborhood safety concerns could mean increased police presence around the clinic, which is bad news for many sex workers. According to Gupta, overinvolvement with police could jeopardize the safe-space atmosphere St. James wants for its patients.

“We strive to provide non-judgmental healthcare for sex workers and their families,” Gupta said.  “For somebody to fear coming to our clinic because they fear persecution due to our proximity to law enforcement would really be a detriment and completely go against our mission.”

Law enforcement’s interest in St. James’ operations may seem like a given. After all, prostitution is illegal in San Francisco. It’s also one of a number of jobs that can qualify a man or woman for St. James’ services.

Tony Flores is an inspector sergeant with the San Francisco Police Department. The 33-year SFPD veteran is currently assigned to the human trafficking division of the department’s Special Victims Unit, where he mostly focuses on commercial sex and forced labor. Flores said having institutions like St. James actually makes his job easier, but not necessarily in making arrests.

“We focus on victims and victimologies and having victims taken care of,” Flores said. “The only way we can do this is by understanding the victim’s needs. This is where (St. James) and all the other NGOS and non-governmental agencies or victims services will actually assist us in getting those victims their wants and needs.”

Both Ashley and Flores said they have recently sat on community panels together, discussing ways to better serve the sex worker community. Flores said he isn’t a stranger to working with sex worker advocacy groups in an effort to better the lives of what he views as an exploited demographic. The Standing Against Global Exploitation Project was a San Francisco nonprofit the department worked with closely. The organization has since folded, and Flores said losing SAGE meant the department had lost “some really good advocates,”  and he doesn’t want to see the same fate for St. James.

As for its medical offerings, Gupta said St. James is no different than any other health clinic. According to her, St. James’ peer-based approach to serving sex workers is really the only thing that makes it unique.

“We do offer HIV and STI testing like any other clinic,” Gupta said. “But the rate of STIs that we are picking up are equivalent to other (demographics). They’re not any higher”

They treat people for coughs, colds, rashes and high blood pressure. St James offers free therapy and case management on Monday mornings, and hosts needle exchanges every Tuesday afternoon. These scheduled events appear on St. James’ online schedule well through the clinic’s projected early January move-out date, underlining an intent to being on call for a community in need.

The clinic is both publicly and privately funded. St. James gets over $250,000 annually through various contracts it has with the City of San Francisco, according to Ashley. Private donors also help fund the clinic’s operations. Ashley said those private donations have increased since news of St. James’ displacement became public in October.

“We hit our $25,000 mark in three days,” Ashley said, referring to a recently-launched GoFundMe campaign. “I was surprised by how quickly it happened. But I was also surprised by the reach of it.”

Ashley said a lot donations came in from people who she had never heard of before, people who don’t have any direct connection to St. James or the sex industry that she knows of. Other names, she said, were more familiar.

“We got a lot of messages saying, ‘Oh my gosh, one time St. James really saved my ass. Thank you so much, and here’s $100. Hope you land on your feet,’” Ashley said. “I think there are a lot of people who are just tired of hearing that things are closing and were like, ‘Alright. Let’s rally. Let’s keep something here. These services are important.’”

Laws of the Party

A Treasure Island Music Festival attendee shows their THC pill. Photo by Drake Newkirk

By Sean McGrier

[dropcap size=”50px”]C[/dropcap]oncertgoers want to leave music festivals similar to the way they arrived– on their own power, having enjoyed an afternoon or evening of good music with people they hold dear. Handcuffs are not in their plans, ambulance rides are not in their plans and, most certainly, a trip to the morgue is not in their plans.

Researchers and activists across the country are working through both legislative and community outreach avenues to ensure safe environments for concert goers, particularly those attending concerts of the electronic dance music, or EDM, variety. But old laws threaten those organizations’ desired concert-patron experience.

At least three Californians have died in drug-related accidents at music festivals this year. The first two deaths occurred Aug. 1 at the opening night of HARD Summer Music Festival near Los Angeles, according to the L.A. Times. The third and most recent death occurred Aug. 16 after a rave at the Fresno County Fairgrounds, as was reported by the Fresno Bee.

The two Los Angeles area deaths prompted local authorities to introduce anti-EDM festival policies, reducing local EDM concert capacities and raising the age limit of such events in the area to 21.

Organizations deploying harm-reduction staff and volunteers are also working to make festival-related deaths and injuries a thing of the past, but they’re doing so using less restrictive means than lawmakers. Among them is the Santa Cruz-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, where researchers explore the benefits of psychedelic drugs and marijuana use for specific therapeutic conditions.

In addition to that research, MAPS has a team of psychedelic harm reducers called the Zendo Project. MAPS Director of Communications, Brad Burge, said the group’s presence at festivals provides attendees with non-traditional solutions during difficult psychedelic drug experiences.

[pullquote align=”right”]“Most of the risks of psychedelics comes from the detrimental effects of the war on drugs,” Burge said. “The act of criminalizing–making the drugs illegal actually increases the riskiness of people using them.”[/pullquote]

“Most of the risks of psychedelics comes from the detrimental effects of the war on drugs,” Burge said. “The act of criminalizing–making the drugs illegal actually increases the riskiness of people using them.”

The Zendo Project’s aim is to avoid unnecessary involvement of law enforcement, and instead use calming tactics to relax the individual who is being helped so he or she can return to their friends and the event in a more sound state of mind.

“Rather than getting arrested by the police or event security, or being hospitalized, the Zendo is this alternative that we’re presenting in collaboration with the event organizers and on-site medical staff,” Burge said. “(We’re trying) to help reduce some of the risk that is inevitable when people have bought drugs from unknown sources in potentially unsafe environments.”

According to Burge, those risks are unavoidable thanks in part to the war on drugs, a politically-induced campaign that has forced psychedelic drugs onto the black market. Once on the black market, Burge said the drugs are often mixed with substances that can be more dangerous than the psychedelics themselves.

“Sometimes we see MDMA and LSD being distributed as MDMA and LSD, but often end up containing other substances,” Burge said. ”Since there’s no accountability there, there’s no way of people knowing what they’re actually getting.”

In August 2013, Dede Goldsmith’s daughter, Shelley, went to a Washington D.C. EDM concert. Shelley took pure MDMA, the substance that serves as the main actor in most ecstasy and molly pills. According to Goldsmith, the substance her daughter ingested that night, though technically unadulterated, still induced hyperthermia and eventually cardiac arrest.

The 19-year-old University of Virginia student died early the following morning.

“They ran over 400 tests on Shelley’s blood,” Goldsmith said. “She was informed enough to know not to take anything else with it.”

Although Shelley Goldsmith didn’t take the much-feared tainted drugs, her death underlines risks that are amplified by a law that holds concert promoters and venue owners responsible if it appears they’ve facilitated the use of illegal drugs on event premises. The law is called the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act but is better known as the Reducing America’s’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy, or RAVE Act. The legislation was initially sponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden in June 2002, and was co-sponsored by then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. The United States Senate introduced the law the following April.

“That bill had been very successful in shutting down the really negative and dangerous things that were happening with raves back in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” Goldsmith said. “But it is now outdated and is completely inappropriate for the size of these mega concerts that are happening in this day and age.”

The EDM genre has grown rapidly in the past few decades. The International Music Summit released a report in May that valued the global EDM business at $6.9 billion as of 2014.

According to Burge, the RAVE Act has forced EDM concert hosts to think twice about providing amenities like free water, shade and cooling fans for their patrons not through malice, but in an effort to conserve their place in the now lucrative industry.

“The law potentially subjects venue owners to criminal and civil penalties if it’s determined they’ve provided a safe haven for drug use,” Burge said. “Essentially, they’re afraid they’d be seen as acknowledging that drugs were used at their events, and even encouraging it.”

The legislation’s aim was to make people safer in a time when underground raves were a big problem for law enforcement agencies. But Burge said harsh criminal penalties have not, as was hoped, rid these drugs from society.

[pullquote]“The act of making the drugs illegal has actually increased the risk of people using them.” -Brad Burge[/pullquote]

“The act of making the drugs illegal has actually increased the risk of people using them,” Burge said.

Representatives for festival promotion giants Another Planet Entertainment and SuperFly Presents declined requests for interviews.

Fay Zenoff is the Executive Director of the Center for Open Recovery, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that focuses specifically on drug and alcohol addiction. The group hosts classes and diversion programs designed to help people kick their dependencies.

Zenoff said increased stigma makes her organization’s job more difficult. The stigma is rooted in a 80’s focus on criminalization of drugs and the moral implications upon people who use them.

“I do believe that stigma and shame continue to be the greatest barrier to treatment and support,” Zenoff said. “When I say treatment, I mean peer-to-peer resources just as much as medical resources.”

The Zendo Project uses those very peer-to-peer resources, stationing volunteers trained in harm reduction at events where psychedelic drugs are expected to be used by attendees.

Zendo sent 170 volunteers to Burning Man 2015, which hosted about 66,000 “burners.” Burge said the group provided respite services at Youtopia, the San Diego regional Burning Man event held in October, and will also attend Envision 2016 in Uvita, Costa Rica next year.

On Aug. 31, 2014, the one-year anniversary of her daughter’s death, Goldsmith launched an online campaign called As of October 27, the site had garnered 12,800 signatures from supporters who want to see changes made to the the RAVE Act and relax regulations on EDM festival hosts.

Prior to her daughter’s death, Goldsmith spent 28 years working for congressman Rick Boucher in her hometown of Abingdon, Virginia. Goldsmith said she also served as democratic chair in Washington County, Va. from 1988 to 1992, and again in 2012.

In addition to trying to change what she and others view as a dated and harmful law, Goldsmith has steered her daughter’s death to help educate youth in her home state about the dangers of substance use. In 2014, Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia Terry McAuliffe appointed Goldsmith to the Virginia Commission on Youth.

“This is what her death has done for me,” Goldsmith said. “It has really allowed me to help other young people get informed about being safe should they choose to use.”

District 3

Wilma Peng, candidate for District 3 Supervisor, encompassing San Francisco’s Chinatown and North Beach neighborhoods, poses for a portrait in Chinatown. Photo by James Chan


By Sean McGrier


The race for the District Three seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors pits a familiar political face against a fresh mayoral appointee, while an educator and longtime community activist is content to sit in a distant third place.

Aaron Peskin represented the district, which encompasses the iconic North Beach and Chinatown neighborhoods, from 2001 to 2009. Peskin served as the board’s president for the last four years of his tenure.

Peskin is trying to win his old post back from Julie Christensen, who was appointed by Mayor Ed Lee in January. Lee is a longtime Peskin foe.

The tech-friendly, moderate mayor has a favorable majority currently sitting on the board. Moderate board members hold a six to five vote stranglehold over the progressive caucus on many civic issues. If Peskin takes the seat from Christensen, that balance of power could shift to the progressives.

“(Peskin) would certainly be progressive,” said District 11 Supervisor John Avalos. “Whether we would have enough to get to six votes and be a majority? On some issues, yes. On other issues, no.”

Peskin has, as predicted, relied on his record to help him regain the seat he vacated six years ago. While speaking to SFGov.TV, the Telegraph Hill resident championed his successful opposition to the 8 Washington luxury condominium development project. Had the 8 Washington project been allowed, it would have given developers the green light to build high-rise condos along the district’s eastern waterfront.

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Peskin also pointed to a dysfunctional City Hall and a Lee-controlled District Three incumbent as reasons to reinstall Peskin on the board.

“We need an independent voice at City Hall,” Peskin told  SFGov.TV. “(Someone) not basing decisions on who’s for it or who’s against it, or what special interest has donated or what the mayor thinks.”

Rebecca Sarinelli, a North Beach resident and owner of North Beach Copy Center, said she’s voting for Peskin because she believes he’ll help redirect a city she claims has gone wayward. She said Peskin’s independence from special interest parties, like Silicon Valley investor Ron Conway, gives her some hope for San Francisco’s future.

“This is bigger than just San Francisco,” Sarinelli said. “(This election) is gonna set the tone and the footprint for what’s gonna happen in the next decade.”



Lee appointed Julie Christensen to the District Three seat on Jan. 8, 2015 to replace David Chiu, after Chiu was elected to the California State Assembly.

Christensen, a North Beach small business owner before her appointment, gained popularity in her neighborhood after she helped push through major renovations to the North Beach Library. That project came coupled with an overhaul of the then run-down Joe DiMaggio North Beach Playground, which sits adjacent to the new library. She helped the Friends of Joe DiMaggio Playground, a non-profit organization comprised of North Beach residents, secure city funding for the park’s facelift.

Christensen could celebrate her first public office victory shortly before the park’s makeover is completed. The playground is scheduled to reopen 10 days after the Nov. 3 election.

Wilma Pang, 75, is District Three’s familiar long-shot candidate. The City College of San Francisco music teacher has run for the board of supervisors seat twice before. She has also run for mayor twice, and for the board education once. Despite running for office on five separate occasions, Pang is the only District Three candidate who has never held public office. The Chinatown resident said she doesn’t expect to win this time either.

“I am not trying to win the district because in reality, these two people spent millions in campaign money,” Pang said. “I really did not intend to run, but the community said, ‘You have to speak up for us.’“

Pang said Peskin and Christensen “bombard” Chinatown with signs and flyers because, according to the media, it’s the district’s swing neighborhood. If Pang carries a large enough number of votes, her involvement could determine the victor.

In 2008, Pang grabbed 3.5 percent of the District Three electorate, finishing fourth with 939 votes, according to the San Francisco Department of Elections.

Pang fared better in 2012,when she garnered 1,033 votes for 4.4 percent of voters.

A Super Exodus

San Francisco Park Ranger Vidal asks for a homeless man to leave an alcove at Civic Center Plaza where he slept, Sep.11. (Qing Huang/ Xpress)


By Sean McGrier

[dropcap size=”50px”]W[/dropcap]hen Super Bowl 50 arrives in the Bay Area in February, it will bring together two teams battling for NFL supremacy. It will also parade an internationally-broadcasted spectacle that attracts millions of viewers. Last season’s championship game lured a television audience of more than 114 million people, making it the single most-watched U.S. television event of all time, according to host network CBS. Tens of thousands more flocked to Glendale, Arizona for the game and the lead-up activities that came with it.

This season, the carnival rolls into the home of the San Francisco 49ers.

Super Bowl 50 won’t be played in San Francisco, though. In fact, the two yet-to-be-determined combatants will meet at the Niners’ new, one-year-old venue, Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium, 43 miles and two counties south of San Francisco City Hall.

San Francisco will, however, play host to Super Bowl City, a media village where, in the words of a Sept. 1 NFL press release, “fan experiences are free and open to the public.”
The event site, which is under construction now, will be centered at Justin Herman Plaza along the Embarcadero.

Mayor Ed Lee wants to show the world his city’s best face in the eight days leading up to the Feb. 7 game. According to Lee, there’s no room for San Francisco’s homeless population in that picture.

“We are always going to be supportive of (the homeless),” Lee told reporters gathered at Justin Herman Plaza on Aug. 25. “But you are going to have to leave the street. Not just because it is illegal, but because it is dangerous.”

A homeless man, center, sits on the sidewalk of The Embarcadero next to Justin Herman Plaza which has become a construction site in San Francisco, Friday, Sep. 11. (Qing Huang/ Xpress)

Although Lee is not short on critics, he is expected to breeze through his 2015 re-election bid. His comments about the Super Bowl, however, have confused advocates over where exactly the mayor expects homeless people to go.

“We just thought that (the mayor’s) comments were mean and really misleading,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the San Francisco-based Coalition on Homelessness. “He’s trying to say that he’s going to have housing for the homeless and he’s not.”

Mayor Lee has pledged to have 500 city-provided housing units ready in time for San Francisco’s Super Bowl close-up. Lee is also counting on the recently-opened Navigation Center, located at 1950 Mission St., to take in more people in need of respite and prolonged boarding alike.

Since the center opened in March, it has taken in entire homeless encampments by the dozens, even allowing people to bring in friends and pets to comfort them as they work to get off the streets for good. The facility is not designed to help more than 75 people at a time, and City Hall is working to at least double that capacity. In a Sept. 10 press release, the mayor announced a $3 million “reallocation of City funds” to expand the Navigation Center project.

But 500 new beds and an augmented Navigation Center can house only a small fraction of the city’s homeless population, which a January 2015 San Francisco Homeless Point-in-Time Count & Survey reported to be 7,539 sheltered and unsheltered individuals.

“The housing units he’s talking about are going to be long filled-up by the time the Super Bowl comes,” Friedenbach said. “It’s either political–he’s responding to all the vitriol that’s appearing in the Chronicle and wants to seem like a ‘get-tough-on-poor-people’ candidate in an election year, or there’s the idea that if you make it as uncomfortable for people as possible, then they will simply disappear.”

Jackie Juarez, a homeless woman three months pregnant, talks to a reporter on Minna Street where she stays, Sept. 29. (Peter Snarr/ Xpress)
Jackie Juarez, a homeless woman three months pregnant, talks to a reporter on Minna Street where she stays, Sept. 29. (Peter Snarr/ Xpress)

Jackie Juarez, 51, is a homeless San Francisco native. She’s also three months pregnant and has been receiving care from HealthRight 360 and the Homeless Prenatal Program, both located in the Mission District. Juarez said police have increased sweeps of homeless encampments since late August, but also said the police haven’t told the people they are removing where they’re supposed to go next.
“They come in and tell us to pack up our stuff and they stand there and watch,” Juarez said. “They say they’ll give us a fine of $250 to $500 if they catch us back there,” a price Juarez said she can’t come close to paying.

Juarez said most of the sweeps have happened in the South of Market, a neighborhood represented by Jane Kim on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. According to Kim, the city’s current approach to its homeless problem falls short.

“Just moving people around isn’t a solution,” Kim said in an email. “We should be thinking outside the box for innovative solutions that have a track record of success in other similar urban environments as San Francisco because the status quo and heavy handed sweeps and criminalization clearly haven’t achieved long-term success.”

The Navigation Center was supposed to represent that very ‘outside-the-box’ thinking. The mayor’s September expansion announcement, which called on greater private sector investment, championed the project as a “first-of-its-kind” pilot program that had already helped “200 homeless San Franciscans in just the past five months by removing barriers that prevent people from reaching out and accepting the services they need.”

Kim said the needs of San Francisco’s poorest inhabitants should be addressed “every day, not just for the Super Bowl when corporate interests and tourists are here.”

April, a man in his late 50s, has been homeless since he moved to San Francisco from Phoenix in 2013. He declined to give his full name and age, citing his police record and fear of police retaliation.

Rick, a homeless man, settles into his bedding on Minna Street, Sept. 29. Rick sticks together with Jackie Juarez and her boyfriend Gus so Rick can watch over her when Gus has to be away, according to Juarez. (Peter Snarr/ Xpress)

“They’re just trying to put on a show for the Super Bowl coming in,” April said. “Phoenix did the same thing during their Super Bowl. They chased everybody to the canal, which is out of the way.”

April, who said he also spent a lot of time on the streets while living in Phoenix found sufficient aid with that city’s Lodestar Day Resource Center (LDRC). He went as far as to call that program “beautiful,” but said medical needs motivated his move to California.

April compared San Francisco’s approach to respite and rehabilitation to Phoenix’s LDRC with six words: “Out of sight, out of mind.”

The Coalition on Homelessness has a number of programs designed to empower the most destitute people in San Francisco. Among the organization’s programs is the Street Sheet, a bimonthly, newspaper-style publication that features content from homeless and formerly-homeless individuals. The Coalition hands copies of the papers to homeless and low-income people who sell them and pocket the profits. The aim of the project is empowerment, something Friedenbach sees as a stark contrast to the methods deployed by city government.

“We’ve been criminalizing (homeless) people in San Francisco for the past three decades pretty intensely,” Friedenbach said. “People have not disappeared. Human beings do not have the ability to disappear.”