A city worker power-washes a sidewalk near a tent city in San Francisco in 2016. Eric Risberg/AP

Is the city really drowning in filth?

The Great San Francisco Poop Crisis officially entered a new stage on July 13, when, in one of her first interviews following her swearing in, Mayor London Breed observed, “I will say there is more feces on the sidewalks than I’ve ever seen growing up here.”

That memorable line was swiftly seized upon by right-leaning outlets like Breitbart and The Daily Caller, ostensibly to demonstrate the decadence and decay that was drowning the nation’s most progressive big city in its own filth. The idea that America’s urban spaces are literal shitholes has long been a theme in some conservative media—witness other tales of fecal woe that went viral lately, like that of a 20-pound plastic bag full of human waste found on a San Francisco street corner. (It was later discovered that the bag was improperly disposed port-o-potty refuse.)

But the issue of human feces on the sidewalks is no joke in the Bay Area, and it’s been at the forefront of local political discourse for months. In March, NBC Bay Area came out with an investigative report that found more 300 piles of feces (which could have been human or animal) and 100 drug needles in the 153 blocks around the Tenderloin neighborhood. In the weeks leading up to the June special mayoral election, the three leading candidates each made homelessness and street cleanliness a central issue. Earlier this month, a major medical association cancelled its conference in San Francisco, which would have generated $40 million for the local economy, due to the city's “appalling street life,” as the San Francisco Chronicle’s headline put it. Less than two weeks later, an anonymous “disgusted female San Francisco resident” took out a full-page ad in the Chronicle describing the trauma of seeing a homeless man in Neiman Marcus:

The San Francisco city fathers and those who should be held accountable for our public safety have for years let us all down by catering to the lowest common denominator. We, the tax paying, responsible contributing members of society have had our quality of life as San Franciscans seriously compromised, dangerously so.

Sit with your backs to the wall, fellow citizens.

Whether the poop problem, in particular, justifies the national attention it commands is a complicated question. San Francisco has one of the nation’s largest populations of people living in homelessness. And, unlike Eastern cities such as New York or Boston, most are unsheltered—living on the streets, without access to basic services. And as development transforms once-affordable or sparsely populated neighborhoods like SOMA and Mission Bay, the city’s homeless community—and all of its daily activities—have become increasingly visible. Look up from the sidewalk in San Francisco these days and odds are good you’ll see a crane; the vacant lots and abandoned buildings that once provided ad-hoc shelters for those in homelessness are disappearing, forcing more people into the streets.

All of this extra scrutiny could provide the political pressure to finally find policies and programs that address one of the city's most intractable challenges. But homeless advocates also fear that poop hysteria could also end up pushing this historically compassionate and permissive city into a more punitive stance towards its most vulnerable residents.

***

The sense that homelessness itself is exploding in San Francisco is not reflected in the city’s numbers. According to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, the city’s homeless population has remained essentially flat in recent years. The agency counted 7,499 people experiencing homelessness in 2017, about 2 percent higher than 2013 levels, and slightly lower than in 2015. (Other counts have posited vastly different numbers—anywhere from 10,000 to 13,000—and youth homelessness numbers are shrouded in mystery due to inconsistent definitions across government agencies.)

Alexandra Goldman, a community organizer for the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, said she has not noticed a difference in the amount of feces on the street in the Tenderloin or elsewhere in the city, nor has she heard more people complaining about it. “I feel like it ebbs and flows with the way the media is talking about it,” she said. On a recent two-mile walk through the Tenderloin, I saw a couple of piles of dog poop, but nothing that resembled human waste.

In the neighborhood, I talked to Bryce, a formerly homeless Tenderloin resident and street vendor who declined to give his last name. I asked him if he’d noticed any difference in the state of the sidewalks. “It’s always been a problem,” he told me, “but it seems like lately there’s been a lot more.”

Bryce's observations are borne out by the number of complaints the city has received. Between 2015 and 2017, requests for steam cleanings of streets and sidewalks for feces—which could be human or animal—increased dramatically, peaking in the summer of 2017.

So why the discrepancy between homeless population and cleanup requests?

“We are getting more requests, but it could be that there’s more poop on the streets or it could be that it is much easier now to make reports and service requests through our 311 system,” said Rachel Gordon, director of policy and communications for San Francisco’s Department of Public Works. Technology could be a factor: A few years ago, the only way to request a steamer was to call the city’s 311 non-emergency services hotline (and often wait on hold). Now 311 service requests can be made through its app, on Twitter, or on its website. Indeed, 311 requests in general have also been climbing: Average daily 311 calls have increased about fivefold from 2008 to 2018. But human waste 311 calls have increased nearly tenfold.

The graph below shows the rise in the percentage of calls about human waste to the city’s 311 program. Overall, about 4 percent of all calls in 2018 have been poop-related, compared to 2.5 percent back in 2008.

Perhaps the most significant reason behind the spike in street feces cleanup requests is the city’s growth: San Francisco's population has increased by an average of more than 10,000 people per year since 2011, as the city's economy boomed. “We have fewer places that are undeveloped, that are vacant lots, that are industrial areas,” Gordon said. “There are more eyes and ears on the street, and people are seeing things that they probably didn’t see before.”

Much of that population growth was absorbed by low-income and post-industrial neighborhoods on the city's east side, in the handful of areas where it is legal to build multi-family housing. As more people (and especially more wealthy people) move into these areas, there’s a higher likelihood that street feces and other issues related to homelessness will get reported.

As a result, homelessness has been concentrated into places like the Tenderloin, the city's poorest neighborhood. But even there, space is at a premium. “There’s this encroaching gentrification that’s pushing people towards a smaller area,” Goldman said. To the east, the plazas of the city’s Civic Center, where large numbers of the homeless have historically congregated, are slated for major renovations. And to the south, the mid-Market corridor has become a magnet for new development, after a tax break encouraged major tech companies like Uber and Twitter to locate their headquarters there. The older apartment buildings that define the neighborhood are beautifully ornamented, and present a lively urban scale reminiscent of SoHo or L.A.’s Historic Core.

“You see a ton more wealthy people in this part of the city than you did seven years ago, ten years ago,” Goldman said. “Wealthier people often command a higher level of public service.”

Enforcement of the city's so-called “quality of life” laws—like the controversial “sit/lie” law that allows police officers to cite homeless people for sitting or lying on the sidewalk after a warning—has been on the rise in recent years, and could continue to increase, despite the fact that these policies have proven expensive and ineffectual. There’s more consensus in support of new conservatorship laws, which will allow the government to compel those with serious mental illness to accept social services.

One thing often lost in the arguments over the soiled state of the streets of San Francisco is that the residents most severely affected by the issue are those who are themselves on the streets, as well as the very low-income, and often immigrant families who live among them in the Tenderloin and West SOMA. Bryce and Rick Smith, a homeless Tenderloin resident, both registered their disgust at rolling through feces with their wheelchairs and witnessing people in the act of defecating on the street. “What people do inside their house, here, people do it outside, because this is their house,” Smith told me.

A portable Pit Stop public rest room in San Francisco. (Benjamin Schneider/CityLab)

The short-term solution, Goldman says, is “more spaces for people to do private things,” including supportive housing, safe injection sites, and public bathrooms. San Francisco is slowly working toward the latter two, and has a successful public bathroom pilot program that is poised to scale. The city’s Pit Stop program, which debuted in 2014, provides staffed public bathrooms in critical areas throughout the city, ensuring their safety and cleanliness. Street and sidewalk cleaning requests have gone down in the areas surrounding the Pit Stops, Gordon said. The city is continuing to expand the program, and is looking to add nighttime hours.

More Pit Stops should help keep the streets clean, but it can’t address the core problem: The severe lack of housing and shelter in the city. A November ballot measure would tax some of the city’s largest companies to fund rental assistance and homeless shelters is a step towards that goal. But it will take time for this and other initiatives to materially affect the lives of those now living on the streets.

In the meantime, anger and disgust at people who are forced to take care of their human needs wherever they can isn’t particularly productive, said Goldman.

“I would like to see people approaching this with a lot more compassion. Rather than just saying, ‘This bothers me; I don’t want to see this’, be like, ‘It’s a deep moral failing that we’re not able to help our sickest neighbors.’”

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