Connecting state and local government leaders

The Poop Problem Plaguing One of America’s Wealthiest Cities

In this photo taken on Thursday, April 26, 2018, a woman in a wheelchair passes a "Pit Stop" public restroom facility in San Francisco.

In this photo taken on Thursday, April 26, 2018, a woman in a wheelchair passes a "Pit Stop" public restroom facility in San Francisco. AP Photo/Ben Margot

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

“People should have places to go to the bathroom when they need to, and in San Francisco they don't,” says a supervisor there looking to tackle this and other issues tied to street cleanliness.

The map of places where poop has been reported on San Francisco’s streets and sidewalks in recent years shows a city awash in a sea of brown.

OpenTheBooks.com, a self-proclaimed government watchdog group, built the map using city data, denoting each incident with a brown marker. The group’s founder and CEO, Adam Andrzejewski, said in an article last week that, since 2011, there have been at least 118,352 reported instances of “human fecal matter” on the city’s streets.

It’s not the first effort to analyze and display reports of feces in public rights of way there. And Curbed San Francisco has raised doubts about what share of the total incidents can accurately be attributed to humans, versus dogs, given the way that the city organizes its data.

But setting aside sticky questions about where all of the poop came from, the map is a reminder that in one of America’s richest cities—where firms flush with cash churn out “disruptive” tech, where hundreds of residents are poised to become newly minted millionaires this year, and the median home value is around $1.3 million—some people lack a reliable, private place to defecate.

“I walked outside my door today and there was poop smeared all over my block and, you know, this is a daily reality,” Supervisor Matt Haney said during a phone interview on Tuesday.

“It's a public health crisis,” he added. Sometimes dog droppings are mistaken for human waste, “that's true,” Haney said, “but there is a human feces issue, without a doubt.”

An image of the OpenTheBooks.com map showing incidents of reported feces in San Francisco from 2011 to 2019. Click the image to access the interactive version. (OpenTheBooks.com)

Elected last year, Haney represents a district that encompasses neighborhoods such as the Tenderloin and South of Market, where the city’s poop problems are especially acute. It’s also where large groups of the city’s homeless residents end up staying on the sidewalks.  

Haney plans to release more details next Monday for a 10-point plan focused on improving street cleanliness.

It would expand the number of public bathrooms in the city and extend the hours that they’re open, while tackling other issues as well, like increasing the availability of usable trash cans, baggies for dog waste, and boxes to dispose of used syringes.

Haney would also like to try out an approach where workers who he describes as “cleanliness ambassadors” would be assigned to troubled corridors to conduct upkeep and report problems on an ongoing basis, rather than city crews sweeping through less frequently.

Some of his proposals, including the one that has to do with bathrooms, will require legislation, others, he says, may be budget items, or could be worked out with city departments.

Haney notes that he lives on a block that The New York Times called the “dirtiest block in San Francisco.” But he frames the problem with people relieving themselves in public spaces in the context of human rights and basic dignity.  

“A lot of the human feces is from people who are either on our streets, or living on our streets, who have nowhere else to go at nighttime,” the city lawmaker said. “People should have places to go to the bathroom when they need to, and in San Francisco they don't."

San Francisco for years now has grappled with homelessness problems. One-night counts conducted in 2015 and 2017 found about 7,500 people at least were homeless in the city.

“We have massive displacement in San Francisco, a lot of folks living without access to running water and toilet facilities,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director for the Coalition on Homelessness.

They’ve “gotta go somewhere,” she added.

Friedenbach says that when it comes to toilets, the city has expanded the deployment of portable bathrooms in certain neighborhoods, but that these facilities have limited hours, and that the available restroom options for the homeless dwindle after 8 p.m.

She explained that the city has been reluctant to open bathrooms that are not staffed, due to concerns about illicit activities. “That of course then presents a funding barrier,” she said.

The Coalition on Homelessness supports a package of about $14 million in city spending related to homelessness issues. Much of the money would go toward housing subsidies, but roughly $400,000 would be for keeping two staffed bathrooms open seven nights a week.

As a starting point, Haney wants to see at least 10 more public restrooms in the city and five kept open 24 hours a day.

He doesn’t have estimates yet for how much this would cost, but says there could be opportunities for advertising or sponsorship deals for the facilities to help cover the expense.

Implementing more regular, or sometimes daily, pressure washing of sidewalks is another element of his plan. As it stands, he said, “somebody has to actually call in the poop" in many cases and then it might take two days or more for the city to get it cleaned up.

“We’re creating some of these problems ourselves by not being proactive,” Haney said.

San Francisco, with about 883,000 residents, collected around $11.2 billion in total revenues in fiscal 2018, according to its most recent financial report. Friedenbach says the city spends about 3 percent of its budget on homelessness, including shelters and other housing programs and outreach.

Last November, San Francisco voters approved a ballot measure to tax businesses to pay for homelessness services, but the city so far hasn’t tapped that money out of concerns about a possible legal challenge.

“It’s a tremendous amount of wealth here, a tremendous tax base,” Friedenbach said. But she added: “The priorities are not necessarily on solving a humanitarian crisis.” She also flags “massive divestment” in federal funding for poverty programs over the past three decades.

Even so, Haney says he thinks the city should be able to improve the state of its sidewalks in the near term.

“The problem is not just the feces on the ground,” he said. “It's the fact that somebody was in a situation where the only choice that they had was to use the bathroom on the sidewalk. I think in a city like San Francisco we should be past that.”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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