With homelessness up double digits in San Francisco and surrounding areas it’s definitely too early to claim victory over the scourge of human waste on the streets, but today the Associated Press reports there are some initial signs that the city’s efforts to combat the problem are working. Last August the city announced the creation of a “poop patrol” which would target problem neighborhoods for steam cleaning. The city also expanded the use of “pit stop” toilets which are basically a pair of toilets in a trailer which the city can part wherever needed. At least one local businessman says things have improved:
[Ahmed] Al Barak says it’s an improvement from a year ago, before the city posted a portable toilet across the street from his business in the city’s Tenderloin district.
He no longer regularly sees people relieve themselves in broad daylight, and he does not see as much feces and urine on the streets. In his opinion, it’s the one bright spot in a city where taxes are too high.
“We used to have a disaster here. I used to call the city all the time to come and clean, because they don’t know where to go,” he said, recalling one woman in particular who shrugged at him in a “what can you do?” gesture as she squatted to pee.
As a result of the improvement, there are fewer requests over the city’s non-emergency request service for street cleaning:
Mayor London Breed last year announced the formation of a special six-person “poop patrol” team where each cleaner earns more than $70,000 a year.
Advocates say steam cleaning requests have dropped in areas surrounding some of the public toilets. The mayor signed a budget Thursday that includes money for seven new Pit Stop bathrooms for a city where a one-night count of homeless people grew 17% in the past two years. The toilets each cost an average of $200,000 a year to operate, with most of the money going to staffing and overhead.
All of the toilets have a full-time attendant, usually someone who has spent a long stretch in prison and is grateful for the work. The attendant is there to make sure homeless people aren’t taking naps inside the toilets and that they’re not doing drugs. I wonder how hard and fast that last rule is though. The toilets also contain a bin for disposing of used needles.
Los Angeles, which also saw a double-digit increase in homelessness this year, has also been operating 16 of the “pit-stop” toilets downtown. That’s not nearly enough for the estimated 50,000+ homeless in LA county. However, there is a concern that providing enough of the staffed toilets for everyone on the streets would be a very expensive proposition:
L.A. has estimated that staffing and operating a mobile bathroom can cost more than $300,000 annually — a price tag that has galled some politicians. During budget talks this spring, city officials estimated that providing toilets and showers for every homeless encampment in need would cost more than $57 million a year.
“How many single-family homes could you build for that much money?” Councilman Paul Krekorian asked at a hearing at City Hall last month, saying that L.A. had to find a cheaper solution.
Most of the cost of these toilets isn’t the hardware, it’s the attendant. You’re paying someone minimum wage to babysit the site all day long (the toilets close at night) and that adds up. But not having someone on-site invites the homeless to get creative with the space. Someone could move in, barricade the door and proclaim the trailer their new home until police are sent to remove them. Or you could have drug dealers setting up shop and making the site a shooting gallery.
There’s probably no way to cut costs and have the facilities be used as intended. The estimated $57 million a year is just one more cost the county would be forced to absorb from working people to cover the shortcomings of people living on the streets because of drug addiction, mental illness, etc. That definitely doesn’t seem fair to the people paying the bills but at least there’s a chance the city where they live and work wouldn’t be a disgusting mess.
[Note: the graphic above was created by plotting all of the reports of feces the city of San Francisco has received from residents since 2011.]