Offended by soiled streets, city on offensive with ‘poop patrol’
SAN FRANCISCO — The sidewalks surrounding Ahmed Al Barak’s corner market in one of San Francisco’s roughest neighborhoods are filled with cardboard, used syringes and homeless people who have nowhere safe to go at night.
But Al Barak says it’s an improvement from a year ago, before the city posted a portable toilet across the street from his business in the city’s Tenderloin district.
He no longer regularly sees people relieve themselves in broad daylight, and he does not see as much feces and urine on the streets. In his opinion, it’s the one bright spot in a city where taxes are too high.
“We used to have a disaster here. I used to call the city all the time to come and clean, because they don’t know where to go,” he said, recalling one woman in particular who shrugged at him in a “what can you do?” gesture as she squatted to urinate.
San Francisco started its “Pit Stop” program in July 2014 with public toilets in the city’s homeless-heavy Tenderloin, after children complained of dodging human waste on their way to school. Today, the staffed bathrooms have grown from three to 25 locations, and the program has expanded to Los Angeles. In May, the toilets in San Francisco recorded nearly 50,000 flushes, all logged by attendants.
The condition of San Francisco’s streets has been a source of embarrassment to city leaders, and cleaning up is not cheap. The city received nearly 27,000 requests for feces removal in the most recent fiscal year, although not all are human.
Mayor London Breed last year announced the formation of a special sixperson “poop patrol” team where each cleaner earns more than $70,000 a year.
Advocates say steam cleaning requests have dropped in areas surrounding some of the public toilets. The mayor signed a budget Thursday that includes money for seven new Pit Stop bathrooms for a city where a one-night count of homeless people grew 17% in the past two years. The toilets each cost an average of $200,000 a year to operate, with most of the money going to staffing and overhead.
Some of the bathrooms are permanent fixtures, while others are portables with two toilets that are trucked in and out. The stops have receptacles for used syringes and dog waste. Attendants who are paid the city’s minimum wage of $16 an hour check after every use and knock on doors to make sure people are not doing drugs or other illicit activity.
The staffing is what makes a toilet a Pit Stop, and the work is usually done by men coming out of prison after decades behind bars.
The “practitioners” stand guard at some of society’s bleakest intersections of poverty, addiction and mental illness, says Lena Miller, founder of nonprofit Hunters Point Family and its spinoff, Urban Alchemy, which staffs the Pit Stops in San Francisco and Los Angeles. They prevent overdoses, break up fights and greet regulars, she says.
“Really what we’re doing is we’re creating this space where people know that they can walk into it, and it’s going to smell good. It’s going to look good,” Miller said. “There won’t be trash everywhere, and they’re safe. And I think that makes all the difference in the world.”
An attendant exits a “Pit Stop” public toilet last week in San Francisco.