San Francisco opened a liaison center at UN Plaza on Tuesday to connect Tenderloin residents to housing, addiction treatment and other services, a major component of Mayor London Breed’s initiative to address living conditions and overdose deaths in the neighborhood.

The city said anyone can now enter the street at 1170 Market St. to get food or clothing or to bathe or use the bathroom. They can then get referrals for mental health care, addiction treatment, shelter, and other resources.

On Tuesday morning, the fences surrounding the Liaison Center’s outdoor area had signs announcing, “Come as you are. Help starts here.

Outreach workers will distribute flyers advertising the liaison center and help transport people there. Up to 100 people at a time, plus staff, can stay inside. Mary Ellen Carroll, director of the emergency department responsible for crisis response, said Tuesday morning she was “super hopeful” the center could provide people with resources and glad some had already come to rest or connect to detox.

The launch of the center was accelerated by Breed’s declaration of a state of emergency last month linked to overdose deaths in the Tenderloin. The declaration allowed the city to forego a long process of opening the site. The center is the most notable change under the mayor’s initiative and key to its success. Advocates and officials broadly support the idea — unique among the city’s existing resources because it consolidates several services into one easily accessible one-stop shop — but some fear the police could be involved in routing people.

Last month, Breed twice said that people using drugs on the street would either have the option of going to the liaison center or going to jail. However, outside the center on Tuesday, Police Captain Chris Canning and Carroll said police would not force people into treatment or automatically arrest them if they did not come to the center now.

When asked what the police would do if someone didn’t want to go, Canning said it depended on the reason for the contact.

“People who break the law risk being arrested anyway,” he said. “There is no plan and there is no direction for the police to force people to seek treatment instead of taking a coercive approach. … They can tell people that these resources exist. There is a collaborative approach, but no constraint.

Carroll said she has asked police to focus on violent and serious crime, while social and public health workers conduct outreach to serve people with substance use disorders.

“We are absolutely trying to send a message that outdoor drug use is not something that is going to be acceptable in the Tenderloin in the future and we are trying to provide services to people,” he said. she declared. “At this point it’s voluntary and we’re not throwing people in jail or doing anything like that.”

So far, the number of police in the Tenderloin has not increased due to budget and staffing shortages, but last week the mayor stuck to his approach. Carroll did not rule out the possibility that the police would be more involved if the staff and the budget increased.

“That’s our strategy that we’re going to start with and we’ll see how it goes,” Carroll said.

Just before the center opened at 8 a.m., three police cars were parked in UN Plaza and two officers approached a man sitting on the opposite site of the center plaza. The man, Claire Rummel, stood up after saying the police told him what they told him almost every day – that he couldn’t ‘hang around’.

That day, he hoped it would be different, as he waited to enter the liaison center. The first thing he wanted? A haircut, he said. (City staff said haircuts were not available on site but could get a referral).

Rummel said he couldn’t remember the last time he had his hair cut, or showered or slept for that matter. The 60-year-old has been homeless for 30 years and put himself on a housing list a year ago, but nothing happened. He hoped the liaison center would help him, although after he left in the direction of City Hall, the Chronicle did not see him enter for the next few hours.

Asked if it was common to ask people in the square to move, Canning did not answer directly, but said: “Whenever we engage with people, we try to see s ‘they need help’ as well as dealing with law breakers.

After the center opened at 8 am, people started coming in and out.

Max Parkinson, who checked a friend in a wheelchair out of the center around 11am, said it was a nice, clean building with friendly staff. He showed a bag of popcorn, a burger, water and a pack of socks, and said he had been put on a housing list – the first time in eight months he had lived in town after moving out of a friend’s house in Clearlake.

Parkinson plans to return to the center tomorrow and tell other people to come get help. He recently started using methadone for his drug use and got ID which he hopes will help him find a job. Once he stabilizes and hopefully doesn’t relapse, he wants to reunite with his two sons, ages 6 and 8, either in Las Vegas where they live or here. He doesn’t want to meet the same fate as his father and his brother-in-law, who both died of overdoses.

Journalists are not allowed into the center at this time, but city staff said that once someone enters, the customer is greeted by a community ambassador who asks a few questions, such as his name and what he needs. Staff from the health department, homelessness department, social services agency, probation and nonprofits are on site.

One of them is addiction treatment provider HealthRight360, which has a small team to monitor bathroom safety and help people. Last month, the organization held a press conference with the district attorney and public defender denouncing the mayor’s call to arrest drug addicts who do not accept help and demanding more services.

“We had concerns,” director Vitka Eisen said Tuesday, “but at the end of the day, people are dying from drug overdoses, and our job is to stop that.”

Also outside the center on Tuesday, supervisor Matt Haney said that while people were concerned about the broader emergency initiative, “everyone should be for it”.

“I hope it makes a difference,” he said. “It won’t solve all the problems.”

The idea of ​​a drop-in center is similar to what was outlined in the MentalHealthSF legislation, which Haney co-authored, intended to overhaul the city’s behavioral health care system. Radical reforms have been slow to unfold. The emergency Tenderloin initiative is now fulfilling some of the promises of this legislation by creating a hub, better coordinating and closing gaps in services, and hiring 200 behavioral health vacancies faster.

Much of Tuesday morning’s net looked normal. The blocks guarded by Community Ambassadors were mostly clean and clear, and the strips without Ambassadors were as crowded as last week, with people sleeping in tents or sitting on the pavement, using drugs or selling food. property they admitted to being stolen.

Terrance King, sitting along UN Plaza, said other officers came out, but they did nothing but tell him he couldn’t hang around like they usually do. He also asked an outreach worker to offer him accommodation in the morning. He had an appointment at 8:30 a.m., but just before 10 a.m. he was surprised to learn that he had missed it. He said he hadn’t heard of the liaison center and what it offered, even though he was sitting across the square.

When Captain Canning and another policeman standing between King and the fountain walked away, King lit up.

Mallory Moench is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter:@mallorymoench