By CAITLIN ESCH
It’s a story made for the late Molly Ivins, a Texas-bred columnist who never minced words. As a rookie reporter in Houston, she called herself the “sewer editor,” and later at The New York Times ran into the editor’s pen when she described New Mexico’s chicken slaughter festival as a “gang pluck.”
Ivins might have taken one look at the struggle between residents and day laborers in the Mission and termed it the Caca War. The facts seem undisputed: day laborers who stand on the streets looking for work, occasionally—some day laborers say it’s only the inebriated who do such things—relieve themselves in the open air. War may be an exaggeration, but caca is not.
“I just called the health department yesterday,” said Connie Weber, a Shotwell Street retiree. “There was defecation. Neighbors were complaining. It smells terrible, and then the flies come.”
Hillary Ronen, an attorney at La Raza Centro Legal in the Mission—also home to the Day Laborer Program—said that worker-resident relations along Shotwell, Virgil, Cesar Chavez, and 26th Streets have been tense since day laborers began gathering there.
Connie Weber, who has lived on Shotwell Street since 1959, said the caca wars—not her description—began about nine years ago when the day labor center moved to the neighborhood.
District 9 Supervisor Tom Ammiano’s aide Zach Tuller said the office has received many complaints over the years, and has tried to reconcile day laborers and residents.
“We paid a mediator out of our budget,” said Tuller, recalling Ammiano’s effort a few years ago. “But it didn’t go very well. The mediator quit—and they rarely do. It’s hard to overestimate the sensitivity of the issue.”
Tuller said Ammiano’s office has lobbied for more trash cans in the Mission, and has asked the Department of Public Works to pay more attention to problem areas in District 9.
“They spend more time in that part of the Mission that anywhere else,” Tuller said.
Ronen believes residents and laborers could work together to pressure the city for more restrooms. The problem is caused by a minority of homeless and day laborers battling drug and alcohol addictions, and not by the general day laborer population, she added.
“When the Day Labor Program closes at 1 p.m., they have no place to use the bathroom,” she said. “We’ve campaigned the city to open more public restrooms, but we weren’t successful.”
Within the 94110 zip code, the city counts 18 public restrooms.
At least seven public restrooms—not including those in the Day Labor Center—are within a 10-block radius of the area in question. The closest toilet is a few blocks away at Cesar Chavez and South Van Ness. The green lavatory costs a quarter to use, however the city gave the Day Labor Program unlimited free tokens, according to Tuller.
Citywide, there are 25 green lavatories positioned near BART stations and tourist attractions owned and maintained daily by private advertising company JC Decaux. It puts up the toilets in exchange for free ad space throughout the city. Each toilet costs an estimated $250,000 to install, according to ad coordinator Marcelino Montoya. JC Decaux puts in toilets at the city’s discretion and has no plans to install another.
“We probably wouldn’t install another [toilet] at that location, since there’s one nearby,” reasoned Christine Falvey, spokesperson for the Department of Public Works.
Weber doesn’t think the solution lies in building more restrooms. Portable toilets installed in the past have attracted prostitution and drug use, she said. Instead, Weber would like to see day laborers relocated to another space, possibly indoors where they “can drink coffee and watch TV.”
It’s unlikely day laborers will relocate. In the meantime, residents rely on the caca cleanup squad from the Department of Public Works, which gets calls every week from locals reporting waste or other public health hazards. They are responsive—even providing supplies for Weber to sweep the street—a chore she has taken up.
Tuller said we need to “depoliticize the entire situation,” breaking down the barriers that divide immigrant workers from local neighbors.
For her part, Ronen is open to continuing community dialogue despite contentious meetings in the past, the most recent of which took place last year. “It really disintegrated quickly,” she recalled. “Such disrespect—a small minority of neighbors weren’t interested in dialogue because they haven’t accepted the day laborers right to be there.”
The problem is likely to continue. Tuller explained, a declining economy means there will be more men out on the street looking for work. “Every place in the country that has day laborers has this problem,” he said. So, as Ivins might write, the caca war continues.