San Francisco’s Poop Problem

In this day and age it’s not hard to find an argument about the proper role of government in American society. Almost everyone agrees that government should have a significant role in public safety and national security, but even with those gimmes there’s significant disagreement about what that looks like. Throw in topics like education, public welfare, transportation, etc. and you’re going to get heated debate in any room with more than one person in it.

Still, with all that disagreement you’d think that any municipality in the country would have a pretty easy time getting its citizens behind the concept of doing whatever is necessary to keep people from pooping in public. The folks in San Francisco seem to be intent on making a mountain out of a pile of poo:

As a Mission kid, I have experienced days, even weeks, in a row when I’ve had to pull my eager dog away from steaming pancakes of human shit, or I’ve had to step over a sad, sick turd-smeared man passed out among sculpture-like piles of his own doo-doo mere feet from my doorway.However San Francisco’s poop problem isn’t confined to the streets of the Mission. Other neighborhoods ­– particularly SOMA, Mid-Market, and the Tenderloin ­– have a similar human-excrement predicament. Let’s face­­ it: if you live in the city, regardless of location or class affiliation, you’ve probably had your own encounter with the aftermath of a public number-two.

We live in a beautiful city that’s praised for its progressive values and the deeply set urban intellect of its residents. Why, then, do I find myself, on a daily basis, stepping around errant piles of fecal matter? In simpler terms, what’s with all the shit?…

It’s there for one reason, and one reason only: people needed to use the loo, and none was there for the using. And for the most part, these people are San Francisco’s massive homeless population.

There are more than 10,000 people living on the streets at any given time in our fair City by the Bay. San Francisco must be scrambling hand over foot to provide at least some semblance of a plan for their very apparent human needs. Right? Wrong.

Nice, huh? It’s not that the fair people of San Francisco aren’t thinking about the issue, but they’re having a heckuva time coming to a consensus about what to do:

Of course, like everything else in San Francisco, it turns out that potties have long been lashed to political debates. In a city that’s constantly reimagining itself, a restroom isn’t just a place to pee, after all. It’s part of a larger dialogue about who owns the public space. It’s a piece of architecture that’s at once public and intimate, where the landed gentry have to squat right alongside the city’s poor. “I think as you see a more stratified city, obviously the restrooms are gonna become more politicized,” former Supervisor Chris Daly says, remembering years of public-restroom football in City Hall.

For at least a decade, bathrooms have stood in for the city’s anxieties about homelessness, public utilities, and the changing economy. They’ve created fault lines and frenemies, they’ve cost untold millions of dollars. (The tab for this year’s renovation of a particularly infamous Portsmouth Square lavatory comes to $1.13 million). They’ve become porcelain tea leaves through which we can analyze the city’s development, and proxies for all of its battles. Scoff or turn away at the door, but it’s undeniable: Toilets have been markers for civilization since long before even the venerable coffee bar, and understanding the city now is just a flush away.

The problem is so bad that someone’s created a map of poop incidents and it has a “Report Poop” function.

So a note to all of our fine citizens here in the Piedmont Triad who interact with our municipal governments, whether it’s through volunteering to serve on various boards, committees and councils or appearing before those boards on behalf of themselves or clients and are often frustrated with the process – no matter how bad it gets just think of the folks in San Francisco and remember that things could be worse. Much worse.

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