People aren’t pooping on the streets because they unlearned basic hygiene. Rather, the incidents reflect shameful levels of inequality in the city.
It’s an empirical fact: San Francisco is a crappier place to live these days. Sightings of human feces on the sidewalks are now a regular occurrence; over the past 10 years, complaints about human waste have increased 400%. People now call the city 65 times a day to report poop, and there have been 14,597 calls in 2018 alone. Last year, software engineer Jenn Wong even created a poop map of San Francisco, showing the concentration of incidents across the city. New mayor London Breed said: “There is more feces on the sidewalks than I’ve ever seen growing up here.” In a revolting recent incident, a 20lb bag of fecal waste showed up on a street in the city’s Tenderloin district.
A city covered in poop is so disgusting it has to be almost comical. But the uptick in street defecation is the symbol of a human tragedy. People aren’t pooping on the streets because they have suddenly forgotten what a bathroom is, or unlearned basic hygiene. The incidents are part of a broader failure of the city to provide for the basic needs of its citizens, and show the catastrophic, socially destructive effects of unchecked inequality.
It’s impossible to talk about street feces without talking about homelessness and housing. While there aren’t actually more homeless people than there have been in the past, the gentrification of San Francisco has had a severe effect on the homeless. Development has pushed homeless residents out of secluded spaces, and there is less and less space for them to inhabit as “places where homeless people used to sleep becoming offices and housing”, in the words of a city official. The city routinely clears away encampments, causing people to wander around the city in search of a new temporary space.
Poop on the streets has another obvious cause: a lack of restroom access. Many businesses restrict their bathrooms to customers only, precisely because they don’t want their facilities to be frequented by the homeless. But the “privatization of bathrooms” means people are left without obvious places to go. There are even websites offering tips on how to go to the bathroom in San Francisco, such as by pretending to be interested in furniture at Crate & Barrel or finding the “hidden gem” of a bathroom on the second floor of a Banana Republic. The city has installed 25 small self-cleaning public toilets and recently commissioned a set of futuristic-looking new bathrooms, but a few dozen toilets for a city of 870,000 is woefully insufficient. Bathroom access should be considered a basic right, and it’s worth considering the idea of banning “customers only” toilets. In a city with generous public spaces and a commitment to equal access, no one would ever have to use the street.
But bathrooms are only part of the problem. Housing itself is just as much a contributor. San Francisco spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on anti-homelessness initiatives, but it has only managed to keep the number of homeless people from growing further. There are still 7,500homeless residents who have no chance of finding accommodation in a city where a studio apartment costs $2,500 a month. This kind of inequality demands a radical solution. For all the talk about encouraging developers to build affordable housing, a better plan may simply be to have the city build housing itself. As Peter Gowan and Ryan Cooper put it in a report for the People’s Policy Project, “social housing” has gotten a bad reputation over the years, but partly because it has never been invested in properly. Gowan and Cooper say the solution is simpler than it looks: cities with housing crises need to simply build houses.
A broader problem, though, is the lack of interest that many San Franciscans seem to have in improving the lives of the homeless. Many seem to view this population as a simple inconvenience, such as the tech bro who complained to the mayor about having to see “homeless riff-raff” or the rich woman who took out a full-page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle to report having seen a homeless man with a pair of scissors.
There is a self-interested reason why such people should want to do something about homelessness. No doubt city officials were spooked last month when a major medical convention was canceled due to organizers’ fears of the homeless. But there are “solutions” that simply put the problem out of mind – like Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to give every homeless person a one-way bus ticket out of the city. And there are those which will actually mitigate the effects of inequality. These will cost much more, and demand some self-sacrifice from the city’s uber-wealthy.
San Francisco has begun to take measures to address the problem of street defecation. The city has launched a “Poop Patrol” to make sure the sidewalks are kept clean of waste. But the problem is a systemic one, and is the predictable consequence of being one of the least affordable cities in the country. It’s what happens when desperate people have no place to go.
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