Two Former Drug Addicts Aim to Bring Positive Change to San Francisco

On 730 Polk Street in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco sits a safe syringe access center, St. James Infirmary, where clean syringes and other drug use supplies are provided every Tuesday evening. Narcan—a lifesaving drug that reverses the effects of an overdose—is also distributed.

The “harm reduction” model used in the city focuses on “meeting people where they’re at” as their mantra, and the epicenter of those efforts are in the Tenderloin.

The model attempts to provide a safe way for addicts to do drugs to minimize overdoses. Thus, programs don’t require sobriety for people to be admitted, which means drug users often stay in the cycle of addiction, according to Positive Directions Equals Change (PDEC) directors Cedric Akbar and Cregg Johnson.

“We have taken this real attitude of not really holding people accountable,” Johnson told The Epoch Times. “And so, we’re kind of like trying to meet people where they’re at, instead of addressing exactly the behavior that’s being done, and they’re not being held accountable.”

The city projects it will open the country’s first safe injection site in Spring 2022, where drugs will be administered to addicts in the presence of trained professionals. The site could cost as much as $6.3 million. Advocates for harm reduction say providing safer ways for addicts to do drugs reduces the number of overdoses on the streets.

Meanwhile, Johnson and Akbar worry this will further normalize drug addiction and keep people stuck in a cycle.

Sleeping people, discarded clothes and used needles sit across the street from a staffed “Pit Stop” public toilet in the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco, on July 25, 2019. (Janie Har/AP Photo)

A Stricter Kind of Social Service

PDEC was born in 1993 out of an urgent need to address specific issues affecting the African American community in San Francisco. Yet despite its focus on this community, their doors are open to everyone in need.

The program features a state-certified outpatient substance abuse treatment program based on 12-step recovery principles, “combined with non-traditional treatment modalities that address the whole individual.”

Other services PDEC offers include life skills training, re-socialization training, parenting education groups, anger management/violence prevention, relapse prevention, drug education, and HIV/AIDS awareness.

According to the mayor’s office, fatal drug overdoses in San Francisco have increased over 200 percent since 2018. Over 700 individuals died from drug overdoses in 2020, with many more people dying from drug overdoses than of COVID-19.

“I really feel the majority of crime is being driven by addiction,” Johnson said. “The city is in epidemic proportions around fentanyl and methamphetamine.”

“And people are hooked. And they got to do what they need to do to stay loaded, and they’ll steal, they’ll break in cars, they’ll rob you, they’ll do whatever it takes, because they’re supporting a habit that is not being addressed,” he said.

The 28 founding members of PDEC were graduates from the Delancey Street Foundation, a nonprofit treatment facility focused on accountability, self-sufficiency, and lasting sustainability. This type of program is the antithesis to the city’s harm reduction model, since it is an abstinence-based rehabilitation arrangement. Clients are required to be sober to begin treatment.

Akbar said “even when we started it, they told us we [were] being racist—but we had separate issues.”

Addiction also often intersects with homelessness. Similar to the city’s harm reduction method, the state’s “housing-first” modality focuses on housing individuals before they’re cleaned up. Akbar and Johnson said this doesn’t work.

“Everyone is on the same page of making sure that they have housing first, but if a person never lived in a house, don’t know how to pay bills, don’t know how to take care of a house, Housing First is not the best thing for them,” Johnson said.

Akbar and Johnson were chosen in 1994 to spearhead PDEC’s vision. As former addicts themselves who had become familiar with the inside of jail cells, they created a mission centered on accountability to help people in their community get on a path to recovery.

Epoch Times Photo
Positive Directions Equals Change (PDEC) director Cedric Akbar speaks with The Epoch Times. (Hau Nguyen/The Epoch Times)

Addiction Recovery

Akbar was addicted to heroin in the 80s. To feed his addiction, he would hustle on the street and shoplift. He said he was first introduced to crime and drugs in his family.

“We were kind of taught you commit crimes outside your neighborhood, and I guess it was because we was poor, we a lot of didn’t have things, so that’s what we did,” he said.

Akbar said when he was struggling with his drug addiction, he didn’t know how to overcome it until he met Johnson and connected with him on the phone every few minutes. That’s when it clicked for him: Johnson was constantly in touch with others in the program as a way to be accountable.

Epoch Times Photo
Positive Directions Equals Change (PDEC) co-director Cregg Johnson speaks with The Epoch Times. (Hau Nguyen/The Epoch Times)

“Not only are we an agency, but we’re also a support group for one another,” Akbar said. “And we talk to each other every day. We meet once a week, and we also have the internal support group to be able to support one another.”

The kind of work they do on a day-to-day basis takes a mental toll. From seeing people they work with murdered—or clients found dead after an overdose—it’s easy to become desensitized. But people rely on PDEC, so they keep going.

“I have faith in God too, and I really gotta pray,” Akbar said. “But if it wasn’t for that, that’s why I was telling you from the beginning about being a servant. One of the things to see is when you’re going through things serve others, and when you start serving other people, it kind of helps you alleviate and not look at things as bad as it is.”

With the national spotlight on San Francisco after a year of increasingly brazen smash-and-grab robberies swept through the city, and millions of dollars were poured into social programs targeting some 8,000 homeless people, many community leaders and residents are increasingly skeptical of the direction the city has gone with its progressive social programs.

And while city data shows a decrease in most crime categories, small businesses have told The Epoch Times they’ve stopped reporting crimes such as shoplifting because it happens so often with no consequences.

“And the people that get affected by it, again, are the ones that are easiest to access: the disenfranchised people of color,” Johnson said. “I know San Francisco is one place that you can go and commit crime and be out of jail next day, because the police won’t enforce, and the DA won’t prosecute.”

Johnson said the city’s progressive policies have gone too far with “no balance.” Policies like Proposition 47—passed by California voters in 2014—lowered sentences for most robbery crimes from felonies to misdemeanors if the items stolen do not exceed $950.

The zero cash bail policy—in effect since the COVID-19 pandemic began—also creates a catch-and-release system within the jails. The California Supreme Court also ruled in March 2021 that judges must consider a suspect’s financial ability to pay when setting bail prices, which permits the defendants to walk freely until further legal action is taken, unless they’re deemed too dangerous.

Epoch Times Photo
Pedestrians walk past a Fendi store with boarded up windows near Union Square in San Francisco in Nov. 30, 2021. (Ethan Swope/Getty Images)

‘It’s Finally Affecting Them’

The spotlight on crime prompted the city’s mayor, London Breed, to announce a local state of emergency in the Tenderloin in December and add more funding to the police department to crack down on enforcement.

Akbar said leaders are finally paying attention to the crime that’s been happening in his neighborhood for years because “it’s finally affecting them.”

“People are getting smart enough to be able to know what the laws are,” Akbar told The Epoch Times. “They know what the rules are. They know what it takes for them to continue to use drugs and all those things. But they’re not taught to be able to stand on their own two feet, and to take care of themselves.”

Johnson said Prop. 47 “didn’t make nothing safe,” even though it was originally named the Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act. Proponents of Prop. 47 argued it would create more space in jails for violent criminals while lower taxpayer spending on California inmates.

“Not making everybody be charged with a felony for a misdemeanor, that’s good, but it has to be looked at in real time and is it really working?” Johnson asked.

“We have to begin to teach our communities and our folks to take responsibility for their behavior, not make excuses for it,” Johnson said. “And I don’t know, maybe that is conservative thinking, [but] as long as I’ve been on this planet, I know that there’s two ways to go down this road, and that’s the standard middle.”