The San Francisco Deli Shining a Spotlight on Addiction

By Keri Blakinger 05/04/17

Adam Mesnick used his deli's twitter account to raise awareness of San Francisco's homeless addiction problem.

Mayor talks to Deli Owner
Mayor Ed Lee speaks to Deli Owner Adam Mesnick Photo via

When San Francisco deli owner Adam Mesnick switched from posting shots of pastrami sandwiches last year to tweeting images of homeless people shooting up, he wasn’t sure where it would lead.

“My intention was simply to get the attention of the government,” he told The Fix. But he wasn’t sure whether city officials would respond to his online documentation of the growing drug problem in Deli Board’s SoMa neighborhood.

But in February, the mayor and other local officials showed up in Mesnick’s neighborhood for a tour, taking stock of the problem before sending the city’s newly launched Fix-It Team out to help address it.

“There’s been major strides in a short period of time,” Mesnick said. “So they paid attention to me.”

His attention-getting call to action was a long time in the making.

The 42-year-old former mortgage banker has owned Deli Board since 2009, when he launched a catering company that eventually took root in SoMa with its own store front.

In that time, he said, the area has gone downhill. 

“‘I think it definitely changed dramatically,” he said. “There is more of a drug issue. I would call it potentially an epidemic.”

On his way to work, Mesnick started encountering open-air drug use, homeless encampments on the street and the occasional half-clothed itinerant.

"It's hard to thrive and cook and do something that you're completely passionate about and love, when you're sort of watching a little bit of an urban decay," he told the San Francisco Chronicle last year.

So he took to Twitter.

He initially started posting images documenting the area’s problems sometime last spring, he said.

“The pictures started milder and then the content got a little more graphic if you look through them.”


photo via Twitter 

By November, Mesnick was posting images of drug use almost daily, and sometimes multiple times per day. Sometimes he tagged Mayor Ed Lee; other times he targeted national figures like Donald or Melania Trump.

In mid-November, he tagged Lee in a pair of pictures showing men injecting into their leg and hand, seemingly in the middle of the sidewalk.

“Good family fun,” he snarkily captioned the photos.

“Crack pipe and needle in sight, afternoon delight @mayoredlee,” he wrote in another tweet.

A few days later, he tweeted an uncaptioned image of a man apparently shooting up behind a car, a hint of blood visible in the syringe.

At times, he swiveled from snark to demanding solutions.

“Hey @mayoredlee,” he wrote in one tweet, “what props and measures focus in on the addicted and mental health needs of people like yoni, my neighbor?”

The picture - one of the account’s less graphic images - shows a man sleeping on the street, a syringe on the ground inches from his head.

Sometimes Mesnick switched it up with a retweeted shot of someone urinating on the street. Other times he just offered pictures of homeless encampments.

photo via Twitter 

“Out of curiosity has @mayoredlee ever responded to your concerns? It seem he doesn't really care what goes on in our city!” one Twitter user wrote in late October.

“Nope,” the Deli Board account responded. “In fact he’s never seen them according to this,” he wrote, citing a CBS story in which the mayor came up short on solutions.

“I haven’t seen the pictures, but I understand why they would try to send me a message to document, they’re trying to say can we do something more, better,” Lee told the local station in early October. “I don’t think we have the answer. I don’t think society as a whole knows what that answer is.”

But beyond trolling the powers that be from behind a keyboard, Mesnick took action locally, founding a community group called Better SoMa.

Better SoMa started regular meetings back in August, bringing together business owners and concerns citizens to brainstorm solutions for the troubled area. And at the same time, Mesnick created a Better SoMa Twitter account that photographically detailed many of the same problems.

“It was life through my eyes for a little while,” he said. “That was really what that was for, an attention getting device - and it seems like that’s a popular activity for Twitter.”

And in this case it worked.

In November, the mayor met with Mesnick to learn more about the problem. At the same time, the city was in the process of developing its 2017 Fix It Team list.

Created last year, the Fix It Team is a mayoral initiative focused on cleaning up troubled parts of the city.

"All residents are entitled to feel safe in their homes and neighborhoods,” Lee said in an executive directive before the project’s launch. “All residents are entitled to clean, well-maintained public spaces and facilities, such as parks, libraries, public transportation, sidewalks, and streets."

At first, the project focused on five neighborhoods: Chinatown, the Castro, Mission Geneva, Inner Sunset and Lower Divisadero. But after the first round of fixes met with success, the city announced scheduled 2017 clean-up spots - one of which included the section of SoMa surrounding Deli Board.

In January, the Fix It director held a meeting with local residents. Somewhere around 60 locals turned out, according to city officials.

A week later, about 40 SoMa residents and business owners showed up to a walk to describe the local quality of life, helping to identify areas needing better lighting and plagued by overgrown vegetation.

In early February, Mesnick offered up free breakfast for the Fix It team during a Feb. 11 clean-up event. Then, the mayor walked the community to develop a specific plan.

During the intensive initial clean-up phase, crews from various city departments tackled everything from potholes to graffiti to illegal encampments to street trash and discarded needles.

Fix It is also planting trees to fill tree basins, repairing 25 street signs, and replacing existing lights with LED lights and working with other agencies to replace broken street lights.

For longer-term solutions, Fix It has deployed two paid Fix It Ambassadors to patrol specific blocks in SoMa, cleaning up leaves and litter, removing graffiti and flagging quality of life issues.

“I can’t do anything but be grateful,” Mesnick said.

Even as the clean-up continues, Mesnick’s disturbing images of homeless life have garnered a good deal of press - and a lot of like-minded comments online.

Although images of open-air drug use could be seen as stigmatizing or shaming in some quarters, instead of lobbing criticism commenters on Twitter and local news sites have typically echoed Mesnick’s complaints.

“I have a business near Russ/Folsom. The situation is out of control and the area is frightening,” one commenter wrote.

“SF was once a beautiful clean city but now is a human dumping ground, how very sad,” said another.

For his part, Mesnick emphasizes that he’s not anti-homeless and his goal isn’t to shame drug users. He said he’s gotten “a lot of different” responses and some have accused him of trolling the mayor. But whatever he’s doing, it seems to be working.

“My intention was never really to be a villain,” he said. “It was lobbying."

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.