San Francisco is only the 17th-most-populous city in the United States, but its politics are, with all due respect, vastly more consequential than those of Jacksonville, Fla., (12) or Columbus, Ohio (14). These hill-studded 47 square miles are a crucible of American liberalism, not to mention the nerve center of Silicon Valley. It is also a study of brutal contrasts, where homeless men in rags watch self-driving Jaguars navigate past yoga studios.

Today, the city that paved the way on same-sex marriage and cannabis is facing a grueling and unglamorous challenge: how to keep to its progressive ideals while also keeping people safe amid widely available hard drugs, a police force struggling with recruitment, unaffordable housing and — not least of all — a pandemic that has drained so much life from this famously lively city.

Even though crime has not increased in many categories, burglaries have soared and the mood in the city is markedly dour. And while population decline has been pronounced across all of California, it has been “particularly severe,” as the Wall Street Journal put it, in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, with new arrivals nearly halving in 2020 and departures jumping by 21 percent.

Staving off doom is the work of Mayor London Breed, who recently launched a law-and-order crusade, forsaking (at least rhetorically) progressive commitments in order to acknowledge the grim reality of drug addiction, crime and general disorder. Breed attained instant celebrity —as well as some plaudits from the conservative press, which celebrates San Francisco about as often as it celebrates vegan butcher shops.

“Something’s got to give,” Breed told Yahoo News in a recent interview in her City Hall offices. “Something has got to change.”

The conflict between progressives and moderate Democrats here is over how to reconcile social justice goals with the despair evident within 30 seconds of setting foot on the downtown thoroughfare of Market Street, where drug users make little effort to hide pipes or syringes and the stench of human waste comes in waves. Drug dealers seemingly operate with impunity. The homeless huddle in the doorways of shuttered businesses, their bodies often riddled with sores and scabs.

Progressives see this, of course, but they have long said that simply arresting people in the throes of dependency or psychiatric distress is neither effective nor humane policy, as they will inevitably wind up back on the streets. Criminal justice reformers blame decades of disinvestment in mental health care and other support services for these social problems. They say that more spending, done smartly, will reclaim the streets while freeing cops to handle more serious crimes.

Reformers have also called for more affordable housing, a dire necessity in this city where an average apartment costs $3,200 per month. Many advocates for the homeless —of whom there are about 8,000 in this city of 875,000 —believe in a “housing first” approach that gets people into apartment units before trying to help them in other ways.

“Solving the homelessness crisis will take resources and a commitment to house everyone — and then the ability to match services to the need,” Margot Kushel of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative recently told the San Francisco Examiner.

Voters across California, however, are acutely concerned about homelessness and crime as quality of life issues — and those concerns are rising. Breed has tried to fast-track housing for the homeless, only to be stymied by the city’s board of supervisors.

I get that people struggle with mental illness. I get that people struggle with addiction,” Breed said. There was compassion in her voice, but also irritation, of the kind Democrats sometimes fear showing when it comes to social ills. “We need to start looking at the problem differently.”

In addition to declaring a state of emergency in the Tenderloin, a downtown neighborhood where the city’s problems are most poignantly visible, she has pushed for more surveillance cameras across the city, tighter control of street vendors (many of whom, her office says, sell stolen goods for drugs) and expedited hiring of health workers — 200 of whom are being dispatched to the Tenderloin — who can work with other agencies on street-level outreach.

An official at her office added that Breed has been “frustrated” by the difficulty of recruiting police officers, in what has proved to be yet another challenge to her vision for the city. Still, he remained confident that conditions on the streets would begin to change. They have to, if Breed wants to remain in office.

Critics worry that despite talk of social services and references to San Francisco’s culture of compassion, Breed will ultimately give license to a police department that has faced accusations of racism, brutality and outright inattention to the plight of ordinary San Franciscans.

Several city supervisors have opposed her plan for the Tenderloin, as has progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin, with whom Breed has a tense relationship. “Jailing people who have mental health struggles, putting [those] who are vending hot dogs and other people in cages will not solve this problem,” he said at the time. “They are not the only options available to us.”

Breed’s options are limited because, very simply, she can only do so much within the powers of her office. The city supervisors are to her left, as is California Attorney General Rob Bonta. A natural ally is Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor with rumored ambitions to run for president. But it is not clear how much he can do, either.

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