If there’s one question I’m asked more than any other, it’s this: Why are the streets of San Francisco so disgusting?
Walk down just about any sidewalk, and you’re lucky if you encounter only your standard scraps of paper, cups and plastic bags.
Then there are the piles of old furniture and other junk people discard outside their homes with “Free!” signs as if some lucky soul really wants that huge television set from 1985. (In truth, those piles are either removed by Department of Public Works crews or wind up in homeless encampments.)
And, of course, plenty of sidewalks and gutters feature far more unsanitary displays — feces, urine and dirty needles.
The stench and grime belie the city’s jaw-dropping wealth and its annual budget of more than $10 billion, which is higher than the budgets of several states.
Clean streets are so unusual here, the name almost sounds like a tease. Like San Francisco Loves Sunny Summers. Or San Francisco Loves an Easy Drive Across the Bay Bridge on Friday Afternoons.
In any case, Kim would hire more homeless people to clean streets and provide them more job training, double the number of “pit stop” public toilets and double the number of street cleaners.
To better understand the dire state of the city’s streets — which Kim rightly calls “a public health crisis waiting to happen” — I sat down with Mr. Clean SF himself. That’s the very optimistic Twitter handle for Mohammed Nuru, director of the city’s Department of Public Works, whose job is to keep San Francisco’s infrastructure functional and, well, clean.
The Hunters Point resident and father of five, ages 20 to 29, has lived in San Francisco for 18 years. He has very strong thoughts on why San Francisco is so dirty and what can be done about it.
His crews are certainly trying. For example, in November they responded to 1,860 steam-cleaning requests to the city’s 311 service portal. Those included 1,498 requests to clean feces. That same month, they collected 6,211 needles and 51 tons of debris from homeless camps. They’ve also partnered with the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing to construct three new Navigation Centers, which should be up and running soon.
Sidenote: Nuru keeps a very clean office with perfectly stacked paper, a big, neat organizational chart on the wall and pretty orchids. Hey, if you can’t get a handle on the grime outside, at least you can keep the inside tidy.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Q: I hear from San Franciscans all the time who don’t understand why the streets are so dirty. I know your staff works hard, but there’s still this perception that it’s not getting any better. What’s your perspective?
A: We are in firefighter mode. A lot of those calls are related to people living on the streets. People call about poop, saying, “We need steam cleaning.” And trash. We have quite a number of people who live on the streets who don’t have services, who don’t have bathrooms, who don’t have all the necessities that a person who lives in an apartment or house or condo has. We’re not designed to accommodate those quality-of-life concerns, and so if you look at the data, many of our calls are directed to these areas where people are camping outside.
Q: Does the city need to provide services like bathrooms and garbage collection at the homeless tent encampments?
A: Absolutely not in the public right-of-way. The public right-of-way is for people to walk, to drive their cars. They are not places where people should be living, absolutely not. In a nutshell, we have a population of people that’s pretty big who live on the streets, and we (DPW) are not designed to take care of that population. It’s never been our core business. Our core business is to get into the neighborhoods, get into downtown, empty the trash cans, paint over graffiti, to do all the good things. When you have been shifted into firefighter mode, then it’s a different game.
Q: Is that why some neighborhoods that don’t have big homeless problems are looking sort of grungy, because you’re diverted into the homeless encampments?
A: When you have needles or you have poop or you have places with the stench of urine, those are the priorities. In Public Works land, that’s like a 911 call. And yet we still have to take care of the things we would normally do in other neighborhoods. There’s a little bit of running around and scrambling to address the concerns.
Q: How many street cleaners would you need to keep this city sparkling clean?
A: It’s really not about the number of street cleaners. I would tell you that’s not the best use of your resources to move into maid service mode. Or what in the public works language we call “Disneyland.” You know at Disneyland, everywhere you look, there’s a guy with a broom. I feel that if we don’t find solutions to these really critical problems, then we’re not going to be able to solve the problem. I’m worried about being given a lot of money and people still don’t see a difference. I’m worried because as much as I like sweeping, I don’t think I want to be sweeping the same place over and over again.
Q: But would you take the money? (Kim’s request for $2.5 million in surplus funds from this year’s budget for more street cleaning was rejected by the Board of Supervisors’ budget committee last week, though some members say they want it to be part of the new budget, which starts July1.)
A: I’m planning on taking the money, and I’m looking forward to putting some new programs in place. Trying to get places for people to go, the new Navigation Centers, I think, is No. 1. Having a more dedicated police unit that works closely with Public Works and really understands the issue is another one, that’s two. Three, having a court system that works, that actually begins to look at repeat offenders and committing them into programs or rehab. Those three will make a big difference. If those are working, there’s less drama on the streets, and most of the street cleaners can do what they’re supposed to do. I’m starting to feel some people are on the edge of “is this city even worth living in?” We can’t have that. We’re going to have to solve it together.
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