Photograph courtesy of Kettukusu.

Back when I had a roommate who had a car, someone used to poop behind it. It was good real estate for covert pooping – car on one side, fence on the other, and hard-packed dirt parking surface that (I imagine) perhaps made it feel more ecological and rustic than doing it in the neighbor’s asphalt driveway.

It was hard to know how to feel about this. Not many people move to one of the most beautiful cities in the world and expect to find poop on the sidewalk. But I had received warning that this was something that I could expect from San Francisco. A Mission resident I met on a long Amtrak trip to Philadelphia years ago had, after many hours of conversation about our respective childhoods, travels, and brushes with the law, had broken down and confessed that the thing that he struggled with the most, spiritually, was not hating whoever it was that pooped in the flowerbed in his yard.

Back when he told me this story, public urination and defecation were still legal in San Francisco. Police officers would sometimes issue tickets for things like, “illegal disposal of hazardous waste” but the act itself didn’t become illegal until 2002, when a contentious debate within the the Board of Supervisors (one supervisor wanted to delay the ban until the city could prove it had enough public toilets to provide a legal alternative to potential violators) dissolved into a unanimous vote in favor of banning the act, and fining offending parties between $50 and $500.

The effects of the ban are unclear.

Data collected by employees of the North of Market-Tenderloin Community Benefit District,which hires extra staff to do sidewalk cleaning within its boundaries, reported nearly 10,000 documented “incidents of human waste” dealt with in the Tenderloin.

Uneasiness about the city’s poop problem extends to its data collection. It took Brent Bucknum of Oakland-based Hyphae Design, who compiled the data into a spreadsheet, a little while to figure out what he was looking at. “It didn’t say ‘poop’” he says. “There was a line for needles. There was a line for pounds of trash. And then there was a line for ‘incidents.’’

No such data exists for the Mission because DPW, which is responsible for cleaning up whatever horrible things happen on public rights of way, doesn’t have a separate line item for poop.

DPW reports that between 2006 and 2010, the percentage of sidewalk inspections that found no sign of feces, needles, broken glass and condoms rose from 34.1 percent to 55.4 percent.

Bucknum was working with the data because he, in league with the Community Benefit District, is applying for a community challenge grant  from the city to install two public composting toilets in parking spaces in the Tenderloin – taking the idea of parklets – generated by the Mission-district based REBAR – and turning them into what are colloquially referred to as “pooplets.”

Bucknum, who has a history of artistic toilet building (one, made of latex wrapped in twine, was designed to mimic the human digestive system) appears thrilled at the chance to create a more civic model.“We’re using bulletproof glass,” says Buckman, excitedly. “We’re making them ADA accessible.”

He fell in love with the design of composting toilets while building them in Mexico, India, and Nepal. “Now all those countries want flush toilets,” says Bucknum, disappointedly. “Now I want to convert Westerners to composting toilets so that the rest of the world will want them again.”

The composting toilets would cost about $50,000 apiece – about a fifth of the cost of those installed in high-traffic areas by the advertising company JC Decaux (though Decaux, which provides the toilets for free in exchange for the ability to place advertisements on the sides of them, pays for those). But since they don’t have water hookups they will need to be cleaned by staff who are certified for onsite waste treatment and waste handling.

There’s also some question as to whether they’ll actually be used for composting. Human waste is – in theory – awesome compost. We feed ourselves well, and so our feces are full of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, carbon, and calcium.

But even when heated to the level where any organic pathogens are destroyed, there’s still this: first world poop has a lot of chemicals. San Franciscans take birth control, antidepressants, thyroid medicine, steroids, painkillers, antibiotics, crystal methamphetamine. We may already have sex hormones in our water  but, so far, the city’s environmental health department is insisting on no compost. (Bucknum maintains the hopes that they’ll come around to using it at least for gardening).

It the utopian hopes/dystopian worries aspect of the whole project brings back memories of the Victory Garden at City Hall  – assigned a round-the-clock guard (the rumor went) to ensure that no hobos pooped in the lettuce and set off a hepatitis epidemic at the soup kitchen.

Until we have a larger Community Benefit District than just the one at Mission between 21st and 22nd, we’ll be unlikely to hustle up the funding for a rush of public toilet building.

But, many neighborhood residents, even the homeless ones, do their best to be good citizens. In my wanderings through the tent and camper communities in the interstices of the neighborhood, I’ve found people camped out next to sewer grates that they use as toilets – effectively using the city’s waste system the same way that we do. These people are pros – the sort of people who can engage you in a complicated discussion of the city’s homelessness policy while discreetly unscrewing the cap off a Nalgene bottle of their own urine and pouring it down the storm drain.

And, according to the Department of Public Health, poop on the street isn’t the most awesome thing ever, but it’s effects on average civilians aren’t top priority, given that most people tend to steer clear of it. “If people (members of  the public)  are touching human feces or stepping in it and finding it in their mouths, this is not information that has come to our attention,” replied Eileen Shields, Public Relations, when asked by Mission Loc@l about the risk it would present to the average city dweller.

Nearly a decade later, has 2002’s ban had much of an effect? Hard to say. To the casual observer, the sidewalks in the Mission look much the same. But the odd cases do wind their way through the Mission’s community court.
Nearly a decade later, people are cited, receiving either a misdemeanor trial or a run through community court.  Cold comfort, to be sure. But until a better day, we’ll take what we can get.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. as a bay area hortisexual, hoping we still are educable, i can note that one pile not picked up just invites more- why, how neighborly!
    you can’t go for a walk on bernal heights, without finding piles everywhere- dozens. the problem is exacerbated on rainy days. this isn’t green, period, even if you’ve bagged in bright plastic, and left along the main path. for someone else apparently.

    heartworm was almost eradicated in sf, but now is on the rise- due to people not getting their animals tested and treated, and leaving feces in their laziness.
    one can only hope that gardeners will not show up at sf general hospital with toxo, or heartworm. there is no cure for toxoplasmosis, as there is no cure for stupidity on the part of dog owners, either. there is a cure for heartworm, so get tested.
    please keep your pet at home. if you must use public space for pooping, please pick it up.
    why do you have to be asked and reminded?

    i can report on tiffany, in spite of marking several fragile gardens as ” no dog zone please”, there still are idiots that can’t read, among us, leaving one or more piles every day, and stealing (very expensive) plants along their way. this, in spite of laws and pleading and shaming. one thing we can all see in the bay area- there is a loss of respect for property.

    in each new garden on tiffany, the loss from dog urine damage, and theft, is one to six pergarden, per year. that’s a lot of money. private money, i’ll remind you. the city did not make this project easy, or help keep it inexpensive, for home owners wishing to recreate the street into gardens.

    trees are under assault across the city, from dog urine. i hope we can agree trees are more important to the health of the nation, than your dog urinating at leisure.
    count me as a gardener trying to heal the soils for the trees, and not among the tolerant, when it comes to dogs and people leaving poop.

    public behavior is all about health and safety first. remember my hands are working here every day. i’m healing years of abuse; don’t add you two cents, keep it at home.

    urine, as salt, kills soil, at three per cent. kill the soil, the tree dies, and nothing can live again, except at the great expense of soil replacement. we can’t afford to lose any more trees, in fact we need to plant more appropriate ones.

    a side note regarding those big green phone/electrical boxes- they are a magnet for poop and partying. do you really want that on your street? tiffany has one, and it’s often just disgusting. just yesterday, on the way home from walking bernal, i saw two safeway carts parked there, filled with the detritus of street living.
    if that isn’t a clear sign, let me read it for you- we need jobs. honest jobs, that pay for living wages. saving one life is a mishnah, and a blessing- for all.

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    1. If people are pooping over sewer grates, it’s not the same as flushing into the septic sewer system connected to toilets. Septic waste is treated. These are storm drains going directly into a water source. And when it rains, poop on the ground washes into waterways without treatment. This causes disease and algae blooms that kill kill native plants and animals living in the water.

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  2. i’ve lived in the Mission for about 9 yrs a few doors from 24th. during that time i’ve had to clean numerous turds out my driveway. it’s collateral damage for living in an incredible area. that being said…fooking hell man some of them are just reprehensible!

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