“You see that guy over there?” James points with his chin, not his finger, at a paletero wheeling his ice cream trolley through the Mission. “He could fix that front wheel. He don’t want to. But that’s his thing. People feel sorry for him. And that’s how he sells so much ice cream.”
Everyone’s got a hustle and James has seen it all. He’s doing a lot — cleaning the city’s “Pit Stop” toilets; checking after each user exits that nobody has left anything within those toilets you wouldn’t want to step on; monitoring the commodes’ water levels; sweeping up the area surrounding his place of business; and offering directions to tourists (or the merely disoriented) in fluent English, Chinese via an app, and hand gestures when all else fails. While doing all this, he is listening. He is watching. He is keeping detailed notes on a spreadsheet.
“You see that guy over there?” James points with his chin at another man. A sedentary man with an unkempt, white beard and soiled, ill-fitting clothes who is sleeping beneath the noonday sun. This man, James explains, is an outcast among outcasts. But he’s still welcome to avail himself of the toilet and sink — with running water and soap. “He’s a human being. Gotta treat him like everyone else,” James says with a shrug. “I see the good in people. That coulda been me. And I’m here to help.”
Last week, we wrote about the growing cavalcade of “filth porn” articles crossing the line between exploring the deplorable conditions on San Francisco’s streets and reveling in them, and offering little in the way of context or explanations, let alone solutions.
There is no one remedy for San Francisco’s myriad woes, and beware anyone offering simple solutions for this city’s intensely complex problems. But, in much the same manner that the ultimate solution to homelessness is homes, the means of preventing urine and feces on the street is toilets, and the way to reduce needles being scattered everywhere is to provide lockboxes where they can be easily deposited.
Of course, the world is more complex than this, but you’d think the city would start with the simplest solutions.
Well, it has. Sort of. That’s where Pit Stops come in. Three of these commodes/needle drop-offs/doggie bag dispensers opened up in the Tenderloin in 2014, staffed by former long-term prisoners hoping to make new lives. Four years later, there are 24 of them, including four in the Mission. More than 50 men and women (it’s about 90 percent men), nearly all of them contracted through the nonprofit Hunters Point Family, now monitor the city’s Pit Stops; they’re the ones in the uniforms that, perhaps not coincidentally, resemble those of a pit crew. (James, incidentally, is a real person. But that’s not his real name. Monitors aren’t supposed to give media interviews and the last thing we need to do is make more trouble for a person working this of all jobs. While we were interviewing one of James’ colleagues, a homeless woman defecated on the floor of the Pit Stop and told us “it’s chocolate.”).
Your humble narrator has spent a goodly portion of his career writing about programs that don’t work in this city. But, by all accounts, this is a program that’s working. In August, nearly 50,000 citywide uses of the toilets were recorded on the checklists each Pit Stop monitor fastidiously maintains; prorate that and it comes out to almost 600,000 flushes per year. Last year, more than 8,700 needles were deposited in the Pit Stops’ lockboxes; one monitor told me of nearly 100 being dropped off at one time.
Put simply, the money spent providing for hundreds of thousands of bathroom uses per year — millions since the program’s inception— is money you don’t spend power-washing urine and feces off the street. It’s money you don’t spend gathering needles out of gutters and planters and sand boxes.
It’s money you don’t spend cleaning up dogshit, either.
Not only is providing a place for people to sanitarily relieve themselves or safely dispose of needles a decent thing to do, it’s also bottom-line beneficial: As is the case with every other element of administering to the homeless population, things cost so much more when you react, rather than act.
The Pit Stop program’s annual budget is now $3.1 million. Out of context, that’s a fair amount of money; a single Pit Stop can cost between $170,000 and $205,000 a year to operate, with labor making up most of the costs. But, as a point of comparison, the city spends upwards of $1.19 million per year on toilet paper.
San Francisco, meanwhile, puts a jaw-dropping $65 million toward cleaning its streets; Mayor Mark Farrell dolloped an additional $12.8 million into street-cleaning in the latest budget cycle alone.
It is, frankly, difficult to say this glut of street-cleaning funds is money well-spent. Without providing people with a place to relieve themselves, putting ever more money into street-cleaning is a bit like buying a bigger bucket instead of patching the hole in the boat.
As we noted last week, cleaning the streets is reactive. Even Mayor London Breed’s headline-grabbing “poop patrols” are merely proactively reactive. Power-washing filth off the streets will always be a necessity in this and every city. But, even viewed merely as a spreadsheet item and giving no consideration to human dignity, Pit Stops aren’t just an expense — they’re an investment. In June of 2014, there were 742 requests for steam-cleaning in the Tenderloin. Three years and multiple Pit Stops later, in June of last year, there were 298.
The cost of action is almost always met or exceeded by the cost of inaction.
You will not be surprised to learn that neighborhood residents have pushed back against needle lockboxes. This needs to be overpowered; in much the same way that handing a condom to an awkward seventh-grade boy does not render him a Lothario, it is far-fetched to claim that installing a disposal site for needles will increase usage in an area.
Moving from four stations to 24 in four years is fast. But this city needs to go faster. We need a Marshall Plan for toilets. Rather than solely heed the reductive call for more power-washers and more money literally going down the drain, this city should take the intuitive step: To prevent filth on the streets, provide toilets. To prevent needles underfoot, provide deposit boxes.
“We have demonstrated that we can respond according to the city’s need,” said Jonathan Gomwalk, the San Francisco Public Works employee who oversees the Pit Stop program. “Whatever we can do to prevent people from having to squat between two parked cars to perform a natural function, we will do.”
“When you catch people in that moment of vulnerability, you can see it in their eyes: They do not want this.”