San Francisco will spend $72 million on street cleaning this year, but it won't be enough

The San Francisco Chronicle published a story yesterday highlighting the city’s ongoing public pooping problem. The city will spend more than $72 million this year on cleaning the sidewalks several times a day, but that won’t be enough. The city has received nearly 6,000 reports about poop in the streets so far this year, up 7% from last year. Here’s a description of the effort that goes into cleaning up in the Tenderloin, one of the city’s dirtiest neighborhoods:

“Poop is poop, and we clean it up as fast as we can,” San Francisco Public Works spokeswoman Rachel Gordon said…

Every morning at 4:30 a.m., Public Works crews hit the streets, their first focus to clean up tent camps.

At 5 a.m. — seven days a week — 41 blocks of sidewalks and 12 alleys are manually swept by Hunters Point Family, a nonprofit cleanup program that contracts with the city.

At 6 a.m., mechanical sweepers start cleaning the Tenderloin.

From 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., the Public Works Poop Patrol steam-cleans alleyways along lower Polk Street.

From 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., Civic, another nonprofit under contract with Public Works, manually sweeps 41 blocks in the Tenderloin…

The dawn-to-dusk work represents a $32 million increase in street-cleaning spending since fiscal 2013-2014, an increase of over $6 million a year.

A city supervisor named Matt Haney is pushing for an increase of another $12 million to get the streets cleaner. Meanwhile, the city’s mayor and public works director are saying that, at some point, the underlying behavior has to be addressed.

“It‘s not just about the money anymore, it’s about also needing to deal with the people who are creating the problems,” Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru said. “Cleaning the same area three, four, five times a day is not the best use of our money, but it is necessary until the behavior changes.”

Mayor London Breed, who has made cleaning the streets a top priority, agrees.

“Ultimately, we need people to change their behavior if we want to see a difference on our streets,” Breed said. “Everyone needs to be held accountable for taking care of our city.”

The underlying problem is obviously homelessness. That’s why the street cleaners start around the tent camps. There are some public toilets available in these neighborhoods, but not everyone uses them. Police hand out a little more than one citation a day for public pooping or urination, but they can only do so if the person is caught in the act. Meanwhile, the number of reports of poop in the streets is averaging about 65 a day. And while the Chronicle story doesn’t say so, I suspect most homeless people who get caught and given a citation simply throw them away. It’s very unlikely they are paying any fines or facing any kind of consequences. They are already living on the street. How much worse can things get?

If you missed this earlier post about a map of poop in the streets, it shows the scale of the problem. Each pin in this small section of the city represents a report made to the city over the past few years:

SFist ran a story yesterday pointing out that stories about San Francisco’s poop problems have been pretty common over the past 10 years. Here’s a sample of their timeline:

2010 – The percent of weekly “human waste” calls to SF’s 311 hotline ticks up from 2.5% to 3.5%.

2011 – DPW reports 5,547 incidents of human waste cleanup for the year.


May 2014 – The Chronicle’s C.W. Nevius publishes a piece about the city’s most-poop-filled street, St. George Alley in the Tenderloin. SFist breaks it down by the numbers, and notes that in the first four months of the year, DPW had already received 5,585 steam cleaning requests, mostly for poop and pee.


July 2017 – The poop-ocalypse goes dormant for a bit after the city sees a little more rain. Then comes word from Rec & Parks that they are moving to ban all sandboxes from the city’s playgrounds because all too often they are receptacles for feces, both human and animal.

This is a long-term problem which has become so normalized that is only considered news every once in a while. Mayor London Breed is right that asking residents to pay $70 million a year to clean sidewalks is really a stop-gap solution to a behavioral problem. But even suggesting the people doing the pooping are responsible is likely to cause progressives in the city to react like Dracula to sunlight.

The current approach to homelessness on the entire west coast is to blame big corporations for raising rents and portray the homeless as victims of circumstance who must not be criminalized under any circumstances. To be fair, high rents and insufficient low-income housing really are a factor in why some portion of people are on the streets. But there are other reasons, long-term drug-addiction or alcoholism, that progressives aren’t as eager to talk about. I don’t know for sure but I’d be willing to bet those are the people doing a lot of the pooping on the sidewalk day after day.

I’m not sure what the solution is. Maybe it’s more public bathrooms. Maybe it’s more shelters or tougher enforcement of laws which push people toward treatment for addiction. For the moment, it seems the best San Francisco can do is spend millions every month in an ultimately futile effort to clean up the mess.