The sights and smells of San Francisco

Last month Ed wrote about a local news report that revealed San Francisco’s streets were strewn with trash, discarded needles, and human waste. The situation was so bad that it was judged worse than conditions in some third world countries. Today, the Federalist published a follow-up of sorts. This piece didn’t start out as an investigation. It’s really more of an unpleasant travelogue, i.e. the sights and smells of San Francisco as experienced by a newcomer to the city. Author Erielle Davidson moved to the Bay Area for a job and immediately noticed things were different than they had been back in Manhattan.

Within a few days of moving to San Francisco, I immediately noticed something I had not been accustomed to seeing in New York — a preponderance of glittering sidewalks. Every few blocks, it would not be uncommon to see shards of glass strewn across the pavement, and I quickly learned that my new city was notorious for car break-ins.  One of the first pieces of advice I received from a friend upon moving to San Francisco was that I should empty my car each night and never leave anything in my vehicle—not even a tissue box. After staring incredulously at my friend for a moment, she quickly responded by explaining that theft from vehicles was a common occurrence in the city and that to leave items in my car was simply “asking for it.”

Her reasoning, while dystopian, was depressingly pragmatic. In 2017, San Francisco experienced 31,322 thefts from vehicles alone — that is, 85 thefts from vehicles per day — while an arrest was made in only 2 percent of reported break-ins.  Most of the break-ins are attributed to organized gangs and often committed by those with prior felony convictions…

In November of 2017 alone, 6,211 needles were collected while via the 311 App (the “concerned citizen” reporting app set up by recently deceased San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee), 1,498 requests were made to clean up human feces. The public defecation problem has become so intolerable in San Francisco that private citizens have built an online map to track the concentrations of poop in the city, so that pedestrians may know to avoid certain areas.

And it’s not just poop. The overwhelming smell of urine on parts of Mission Street and Market Street would make your nose bleed. I recall the first time I rode BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit, San Francisco’s subway system) and was nearly knocked over by the sheer stench of the station. I was surprised to learn that exiting the station supplied little to no relief — the urine smell hangs heavy in the more populated areas of the city and is nearly inescapable. In a dark twist of humor, the city has had to replace numerous different street poles due to urine eroding the foundation.

Davidson also describes encountering more serious crime including witnessing a drive-by shooting and having a man try to break into her apartment while she was inside. When she yelled that the police were on their way, the intruder fled, leaving his dog behind.

Much of what she describes, vagrancy and petty crime, could be dealt with if the city were determined to do so. I’ve written recently about Orange County’s efforts to clear out a large homeless encampment set up along the Santa Ana River. That cleanup resulted in finding a place for nearly 1,000 people and then removing hundreds of tons of debris, thousands of used needles, and over 5,000 pounds of human waste.

The Orange County clean-up was mostly the result of one determined member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors who fought the ACLU in court in order to clear out the already illegal camp. Is there anyone in San Francisco who would take a similar stand? Would it matter if they did?

The answer is probably not. There are already people in San Francisco warning that the problem is a threat to one of the city’s major sources of income: tourism. Tourism reportedly brings $9 billion a year to the city and supports tens of thousands of jobs. The San Francisco Chronicle published a story in January on hotel owners who were begging the city to address the problem:

As president of the Handlery Union Square Hotel, part of Jon Handlery’s job is to scour travel websites to find out what tourists are telling one another about his hotel and San Francisco…

Handlery used to assure his visitors the city was doing all it could to combat rampant homelessness, but he no longer makes those claims.

“I am sorry about the street scene,” Handlery responded to the commenter. “But unfortunately our city has failed to address the issue.”…

In a city that spends $305 million a year to combat homelessness, those who serve as San Francisco’s hosts struggle to explain why the problem isn’t getting any better.

“I actually think it’s the worst it’s ever been,” said Handlery, who’s been in the San Francisco hotel business for 38 years.

So long as the economy is doing well, the impact of this can be ignored by authorities. But the problem won’t go away on its own. Ultimately this comes down to city management that decides San Francisco deserves better than being used as a public toilet.