While other cities are busy appointing chief design officers, nightlife mayors and bike czars, San Francisco is rolling out a dedicated team that's sole mission is to remove errant feces from the streets.
Brandishing steam cleaners, power washers and industrial disinfect, this five-person squad composed of Department of Public Works staffers has an unmistakable name: The Poop Patrol.
Per the San Francisco Chronicle, the Poop Patrol's singular focus is to "spot and clean piles of feces before anybody complains about them."
And, yes, people are complaining about them — and in record numbers. As the Chronicle reports, between Jan. 1 and mid-August, residents called 311 a total of 14,597 times to complain specifically about sidewalks littered with number twos. That's an average of 65 poop-related complaints per day and nearly 2,500 more calls than received during the same period the previous year.
(Human) Wasteland, a map-based visualization project conceived by software engineer Jennifer Wong, goes as far to track and map 311 poop complaints so that folks know exactly where to watch their step. Wong created the map in 2014 not to be cheeky or to disparage certain neighborhoods but to draw attention to the city's homelessness crisis. (More on that in a bit.)
That being said, unlike some European cities where not cleaning up dog waste is a national pastime, San Francisco's poop problem has nothing to do with an epidemic of very rude Bichon Frise owners. True, dog poop often does play into the mix. But in the City by the Bay, the offending BMs are largely of the human variety.
In fact, it now seems to be a distinctly San Franciscan rite of passage to start off the day by stepping into — or narrowly avoid stepping into — someone else's excrement.
Poop, pee and a growing homelessness epidemic
San Francisco's poop woes are directly linked to the city's growing homelessness crisis, which is only exacerbated by an utter dearth of affordable housing and the nation's second-highest cost of living. The city has also long lacked an adequate network of much-needed public restrooms, a problem that effects everyone — full-bladdered tourists, included — but especially marginalized groups that have nowhere to turn when nature calls.
Local nonprofits and homelessness outreach groups have taken creative, big-hearted steps to remedy the issue. In 2014, Lava Mae, a group dedicated to "Delivering Dignity, One Shower at a Time," introduced its first fully equipped mobile restroom outfitted from a decommissioned public transit bus. Today, the group, which deploys its roving hygiene stations across the city six days a week, has expanded its presence to other cities including Oakland and Los Angeles, and has influenced similar schemes in cities further afield.
To mark World Toilet Day 2013, Lava Mae coordinated a public art installation in San Francisco to draw attention to those who lack access to means of clean, safe sanitation. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
In addition to the invaluable work of nonprofits like Lava Mae, the city itself introduced the Pit Stop initiative in 2014. To date, the Public Works-headed program, which is operated in collaboration with two local nonprofits, has introduced a total of 22 clean and safe public restrooms — they double as needle receptacles and dog waste stations — in nine different neighborhoods that have the highest reports of human waste. According to the Chronicle, $1.05 million of the city's new budget has been dedicated to constructing five new Pit Stop locations and expanding the hours at another five existing locations.
And to directly address the city's rampant public urination problem, a European-style open-air latrine has even been installed in one of city's most popular parks, Delores Park. Another city-funded effort to quell public peeing that involved coating frequently urinated-upon walls with a special "splash-back" paint ultimately seemed misguided.
As I wrote in 2015: "... applying urine-repelling paint to walls in areas with a large number of homeless residents does seem a step backwards. Sure, a surprise golden shower might send a clear message to an impatient bar-hopper. But does a homeless individual who wants to relieve himself in privacy indoors deserve to have pee-stained pants and shoes? As far as smells go, isn't this just making the problem worse?"
Needed: Way more public restrooms
Obviously San Francisco is doing something about its lack of public restrooms, specifically public restrooms accessible to the city's homeless population. So how come reports of sidewalk poop have only multiplied?
There could be several reasons. For one, homelessness in the Bay Area has increased exponentially and shows no signs of abating. Secondly, Pit Stop locations, while growing in numbers, are currently only open limited hours with most of them closing in the late afternoon or early evening. This means those living on the streets have extremely limited options when it comes to finding relief during the overnight hours. But mostly, there simply aren't enough public toilets to go around.
"We need our streets cleaned up, so I love that they're doing the Poop Patrol," Doneice Sandoval, founder of Lava Mae, told the Chronicle of the newly announced Public Works venture. "But there's no doubt about the fact that we need more public bathrooms. Everywhere we can, we need to make them available. For our unhoused neighbors and everyone in the city, when you need to be able to find a facility, it shouldn't be this massive challenge."
As Heather Knight writes for the Chronicle, the idea for the Poop Patrol, which will officially hit the streets in early fall, came from conversations between San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Public Works director Mohammed Nuru.
"I've been talking to the Department of Public Works director on a regular basis, and I'm like, 'What are we going to do about the poop?''' Breed explains to Knight. "He and I talked about coming up with some different solutions. I just want the city to be clean, and I want to make sure we're providing the resources so that it can be."
(Knight goes on to note that while no poop piles were observed on her walkabout with the mayor to inspect the condition of area sidewalks, a colleague at the Chronicle did step directly into a pile of excrement in front of the Department of Public Health building later that day.)
San Francisco is both a city where you need a $350,000 income to afford a median priced home, and a city that just announced a “Poop Patrol” to clean up the streets.— scott budman (@scottbudman) August 14, 2018
Of course, there's no irony lost on the fact that San Francisco is ultimately an incredibly affluent city now prepared to spend significant resources — $750,000 to be exact according to KGO-TV — on a team of workers tasked with removing human waste from sidewalks. (Per the Chronicle, the Poop Patrol will begin its shifts in the afternoon "as the city starts losing its sheen from overnight cleaning".)
"In typical fashion, authorities in the city would rather handle the image problem than the problem itself," writes Rhett Jones for Gizmodo. "You might be thinking that San Fran should consider bumping property taxes, milking the mega-rich unicorn investors, and building some public housing. Nope, instead it's forming a Poop Patrol."
I'd say keep the Poop Patrol, even if it as an image problem-related BandAid covering a much larger and more complicated wound. But if San Francisco really wants to clean up its streets, it needs to focus more aggressively on remedying the root of this awful mess: the soaring economic inequity that has made such a beautiful and dynamic city wildly unlivable for a vast majority of people.