Erica Sandberg came to San Francisco in 1989 and she literally fell in love with the city. This art and architecture lover knows everyone in town, and today she uses her journalism skills to advocate to reduce inequality and improve the San Francisco population’s mental health. She hosted “Making it in San Francisco,” a program on KRON, which highlighted all the ways people could enjoy and contribute to the city, and currently contributes to City Journal where she reports about life in the Bay Area.
I met her today for a long walk in Tenderloin, a San Francisco neighborhood where the opioid crisis has drastically increased for many years.
What is the moment you realized you had mental health ?
I grew up in a large, loving but very chaotic household. I remember being in the car with my family, at age seven or so, and making a decision that I would always be in control of my emotions. My parents were arguing, which was scary, and I thought, “If I don’t let this bother me, I will be OK. How do I do this? How do I change the way I feel right now” and I was trying so hard to work it all out in my head ! It was a pivotal moment.
What do you want to improve in terms of the population's mental health ?
When I came to San Francisco 34 years ago, the city was marvelous, and there were not such distinct social gaps in the population. Today there are many problematic situations in the city, and they are related : the homeless crisis, increases in addiction, escalating crime, not nearly enough mental health care.
It makes perfect sense to offer integrated care and it’s incredibly frustrating that we don’t provide it. We have a massive budget. The financial waste is disgusting. It’s all bad policy. Allowing people to fall apart and die on our streets is unjust and immoral. Right now, an average of two people a day are fatally overdosing in San Francisco.
What’s interesting is that neighborhoods like the Tenderloin are filthy and so many people are obviously in terrible physical and psychological shape, but in general I don't feel unsafe there. Sad and angry, absolutely. But very often people are friendly. You smile and say hello, they do the same. People are often hungry for conversation; for normalcy.
The government isn’t concerned enough about these issues to solve them. Many of their solutions are controversial and inefficient, such as sticking people who suffer from mental illness and addiction into hotel rooms or apartments. Yes, they are inside but they don’t get any real care. Too often they end up overdosing alone because they’re isolated.
In the meantime, crime is increasing and worsening, and the police are having a hard time keeping up. We’re short nearly half the officers we need. Drug dealers are in control of parts of the city and most citizens are outraged. A recent San Francisco Chronicle survey indicated that San Francicans have almost no support for the mayor and supervisors.
What is your proposed solution to solve this problem ?
We need integrated healthcare for people with severe mental illness, particularly for those who can’t afford it. It is unconscionable that only the wealthy can access such critical services. San Francisco has a $14 billion annual budget, and we should use a substantial amount of it to provide real addiction and psychological care. Mandate treatment when necessary.
In addition, we need to close the open drug markets immediately. Hire more officers and make it easier for them to do their jobs.
What are your plans for the future ?
Losing hope and saying it will get worse without doing anything is pointless. This city's heart is still beating. History is cyclical, and San Francisco is bound to become a great place to live again, but that change will take time and effort.
I am here to report on what's really happening in my city, and promote common sense changes. To me this is not political. I don't care about left or right wing politics. Rooting out corruption and ensuring a clean, safe, vibrant community is what I’m after. I’m not alone. It’s what the vast majority of residents want.
Personally, I don’t want to see one more human being on our streets in need of mental healthcare and addiction recovery services and not getting it. This is a crisis. Getting connected to care should be easy and fast, with no financial barriers. It’s good for individuals, it's good for society.
Is there an artistic work, or someone inspiring that had a positive impact on your mental health ?
I was an art history major in college and I always gravitated to Flemish art - paintings by Jan van Eyck, Jan Steen, and the like. I love paintings where you can catch a glimpse of daily life so many centuries ago. Now I can’t stop looking at ancient jewelry from around the world. Historical perspective is incredibly soothing.
What is the best way to contact you ?
Twitter is easiest and fastest - @EricaJSandberg 🙂
Interviewed by Thomas Cantaloup, on September 17, 2022
Photo credits : Thomas Cantaloup