After more than two years in which problems of vagrancy, vandalism, and petty crime have gotten only worse, Castro merchants say they're going to withhold taxes from the City of San Francisco if it doesn't address their concerns.
It's been two and a half years since a pandemic caused them to have to close their storefronts and wait for the return of paying customers, and a year and a half since the Castro Merchants Association publicly complained about the costs they were having to shoulder to replace their frequently smashed front windows, while the city continued — only slowly — in its pandemic recovery.
The Mayor's Office of Workforce and Economic Development responded last year with a Storefront Vandalism Grant Relief program, offering up to $2,000 in relief grants to small businesses who have had to replace glass or other parts of their storefronts due to petty crime.
But now, the Castro Merchants say they continue to feel neglected, and that they're going to withhold license fees and city taxes pending some greater attention from the city.
"We’re at a point now where it’s next to impossible to run a business in the Castro when you’re dealing with these daily issues that you know a small business owner shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not their front window is going to get smashed today," said co-president of the Castro Merchants and co-owner of MX3 Fitness, Dave Karraker, speaking to KRON4.
Karraker says the association is asking "business owners stop paying taxes and stop paying the fees for licenses because the city is not providing the services that are supposed to be guaranteed based on what we’re paying to the city." Their demands were made in a letter to the city dated August 8.
"You can't have a vibrant, successful business corridor when you have people passed out high on drugs, littering your sidewalk," Karraker tells the Chronicle. "These people need to get help."
One thing the merchants' association is requesting is 35 shelter beds to be set aside just for people on the street in the Castro neighborhood.
As Flore Dispensary owner Terrance Alan tells KTVU, "Every day we wake up and have to help people on the street. We have to clean up feces on the street. We have to clear our people from doorways, so we can open our businesses. It's not fair." Alan adds, "At this point it's a failure of the system to help them."
Todd Ahlberg, co-owner of dog groomer Mudpuppy's, told the Bay Area Reporter last year that his front window was smashed by an individual who had allegedly been smoking meth and growing increasingly erratic over weeks. "If there had been a dog in the window, they'd have been killed," Ahlberg said.
The letter from the merchants refers to multiple individuals living on the streets of the neighborhood who "regularly experience psychotic episodes," and an earlier estimate by the merchants was that there were 20 to 25 specific people who are chronically homeless and who frequent the area.
"They need shelter and/or services and they need them immediately," the merchants said in their letter. "Our community is struggling to recover from lost business revenue, from burglaries and never-ending vandalism/graffiti (often committed by unhoused persons) and we implore you to take action."
Not everyone who is seen on the streets of the Castro appearing homeless is necessarily unhoused, and of course not all of them are suffering from mental health crises.
KTVU spoke to one man on the street, William Rivera, who said he is a San Francisco who has a room in the Tenderloin, but he comes to the Castro during the day because it feels safer and doesn't "get attacked." KTVU suggests some of those on the neighborhood's streets are there because they themselves are LGBTQ and feel safer there than elsewhere.
The merchants' association says they have recorded over 90 incidents of vandalism and crime that total over $170,000 in damages. They say they want more action from the city, and that could come in the form of shelter beds, more citizen patrols, more cleanup of waste by DPW, or more police presence — which itself could cause its own controversies.
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman tells the Chronicle, regarding the merchants association, "I share their frustration. I've been working with these merchants for the entire time I've been in office, and I think we are all very frustrated that we haven't seen more in the way the city responds."
Photo: Kellen Riggen