Trash collects under a tree on 23rd Street. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan

After losing his restaurant job over a year ago due to a pandemic closure, Manuel Montejano came across a Craigslist ad for a job that offered to pay nearly double the minimum wage. 

The part-time gig involved walking around the Mission to pick up litter on the sidewalks. He needed to make some cash, but also realized it would be a good opportunity to set an example for his kids by doing work that made his community cleaner. 

A year later, Montejano still sweeps and collects litter for a few hours a day, three days a week. He covers 40 blocks of the Mission and makes well over $1,000 each month. 

His employer is a pandemic-born Mission District organization called Clean Streets, made up of people in the neighborhood who have pooled their money to pay for their block to be cleaned. 

“Yeah, sure, it should be the city’s job, but … why wait for an official solution to come?” asked James Thompson, the Mission resident who started Clean Streets as a solution for his block, and then expanded it to other areas. 

“The pandemic had just really taken root, and things were all closed. And, in those early months, the city stopped doing any kind of street sweeping at all. And so the litter problem got really, really bad in the neighborhood,” said Thompson, who lives on Capp Street. 

Many people had also lost their jobs at this early stage of the pandemic, and Thompson figured he’d try addressing both issues at once: He posted an ad on Craigslist offering to pay someone out of his own pocket to sweep his block. 

Montejano answered. Once neighbors realized what he was doing, Thompson said they were eager to contribute and get the service on their blocks, too, and the rest was history. 

While Montejano is pleased with his job, it may come as a surprise that in a city with a $350 million Public Works budget, residents are pooling financial resources to have their streets privately cleaned. 

But that prompts the question: Whose job is it to clean San Francisco’s notoriously dirty sidewalks? 

While mechanical sweepers clean the asphalt, technically, the law (and San Francisco Public Works) contend that sidewalk maintenance falls on the merchants or ground-floor residents, whether it’s litter, leaves, or graffiti. The city hauls away bulky items like furniture or cleans up feces or needles (if they’re reported to 311), and power-washes sidewalks in commercial corridors every few months

Despite denying official responsibility, Public Works cleans up sidewalks, but primarily those along high-visibility commercial corridors and specific areas known for excessive illegal dumping, often leaving quieter residential areas to fend for themselves. 

It takes everyone

Clean Streets is just the latest iteration of residents doing just that: San Franciscans have never been content with just letting the city handle the cleanliness of its streets. It just doesn’t get done that way. 

Longtime Mission resident Kim-Shree Maufas is a part of Fix 26, a neighborhood association of residents and merchants on or near 26th Street. 

“It takes everybody,” said Maufas, a former Board of Education member. While she considers Fix 26 to be working in partnership with the city, coordination among her neighbors has been critical — and the city alone cannot be responsible. “Individuals, myself, my neighbors — we’re all together doing this effort. It’s not just one thing.” 

Members of Fix 26 managed to get the Salvation Army, which operates a donation center near 26th and Valencia streets, to put up “no dumping” signs , which helped reduce the massive amount of detritus neighbors used to experience on surrounding blocks. Fix 26 has set up a neighborhood watch and encouraged businesses to put up lights and cameras, which Maufas said deters littering and dumping. 

Aisling Ferguson, another member of Fix 26, learned about Clean Streets on the Nextdoor app, and she introduced Clean Streets’ Thompson to her neighbors last year. Several members started contributing to Clean Streets; both Maufas and Ferguson said they started paying up even before their own blocks could be serviced. 

The city also tacitly admits that it can’t do it alone: San Francisco Public Works provides metal trash pickers, brooms, and bags to any resident who requests supplies through its Adopt-A-Street program. If someone has gathered a lot of trash, they can call 311 to have it picked up. 

And so even with neighborhood associations, private cleaners and city sweepers, people like Ferguson and Maufas both still spend time several days a week picking up near their homes. 

The issues they’re seeing

In their time cleaning the sidewalks of the Mission, people like Montejano, Maufas, and Ferguson have learned a thing or two about what to expect. 

For example, streets like Bartlett and Albion, which are near the plethora of restaurants on Valencia and 16th streets, end up littered with takeout boxes. 

Manuel Montejano cleans litter on a block in the Mission District. Photo courtesy of Montejano.

During the pandemic, Montejano thinks people have been ordering food to eat in their cars, contributing to more trash on these residential streets than usual. When people realize the closest public trash can is nowhere in sight, Montejano speculates, “probably they give up and they say, ‘instead of walking three or four blocks away, we’ll just leave it here.’” 

He sees a similar phenomenon with dog feces bags: People take the time to collect the waste, but then toss the bag under a tree. 

Many, including Montejano, believe a trash-can shortage (a situation created by a failed experiment to reduce dumping by removing trash cans) is primarily to blame for trash proliferation, as people simply don’t have a place to toss their refuse. 

But even on blocks where there are city trash cans, Montejano sees litter blowing around. He mentioned that the 24th and Capp street Covid-19 testing and vaccine site produces a lot of garbage, which residents tell him is from people waiting in line or grabbing food afterward. But there’s a city trash can right on that corner. 

Disposal of larger items is also an issue. San Francisco is a majority-renter town constantly cycling through people moving in and out, and, unless you plan in advance, you might not always get a convenient large-item pickup appointment with Recology. It’s common to come across an entire apartment’s worth of furnishings on the street. 

Near the end of the month, as people move out, Montejano knows he’ll come across these types of scenes all over the Mission. On the blocks surrounding the Salvation Army, Montejano and members of Fix 26 still know to expect bulky items, regardless of the time of month. These are things donated after-hours, or just left nearby to avoid the hassle of officially donating. 

Maufas has even spotted a Bernal Heights developer dumping in her neighborhood. 

And it’s important to note that dumping isn’t exclusively a bulky-item issue. Rachel Gordon, a spokeswoman for Public Works, said that some people end up bringing household trash down to the street, because they either don’t pay for garbage service — or, in many cases, because their apartment building doesn’t provide enough trash cans to accommodate all the residents’ waste. 

Working with the city

When dealing with such a multifaceted problem, residents have found there is no silver bullet. 

Maufas mentioned a couple of notorious alleys in her area of the Mission where Public Works regularly sends what she said looks like a “spaceship” in the middle of the night to wash down the blocks. 

“It’s exponentially better,” she said of the blocks near her house. In the past, Maufas said, she and another family member would walk flanking her granddaughter on the sidewalk. “We’d have to escort her to the car, just because the streets were so disgusting. And we just never knew what would be out there.” 

Even Montejano himself, who takes his children out with him to volunteer on weekends and pick up trash, said that some days the dirtiest alleyways are just too much for young people. “I don’t want to get them exposed to all that,” he said. 

And with efforts from the city, community organizations, and individuals disjointed and sporadic, it’s no surprise the task of cleaning up the Mission feels Sisyphean. 

Montejano has witnessed Public Works misplacing efforts. “They just clean … where there is not even trash in the street,” Montejano said. “Sometimes we bring some garbage bags to them and we tell them, ‘Hey, we collected these garbage bags, can we put it in here?’” 

He laughed and went home to tell his wife the day he saw workers shining the city trash can at 16th and Church streets, while he knew the alleyway parking lot around the corner was full of litter and debris. 

“This is money that probably the city can put in other places where they really need [it],” Montejano said.

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Eleni Balakrishnan

Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim over eight years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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15 Comments

  1. Trash on the streets is the worst part of living in SF/the Mission. We need locking trash cans/recycling bins installed across the city now! The first part of cleaning the streets, is keeping trash in the trash can.

    1. The city has already rigged the “competition” for new bins by excluding the leader in the market, Big Belly (because they only lease their bins), and excluding other options by adding a “phone home” sensor requirement so they can avoid regular collections.

      Bear bins are cheap and effective, meet ADA requirements and already work in some parts of SF. It’s shameful that we have to resort to such a solution, but they have been demonstrated to actually work (and they’re available now, not at some arbitrary future date).

      The bigger question is when the 1500 bins that were removed by Mayor Newsom will be replaced. I’m not holding my breath.

      1. Agreed. Doesn’t even seem like a priority for the city. Hillary Ronen certainly isn’t doing anything about it. $1 billion to throw away on ineffective homeless efforts but we can’t afford the Big Belly fees? Insane…

    1. That’s because the person who runs the program prefers not to interface with members of the public, because it’s more work for them (speaking from personal and professional experience).

      It doesn’t help that their boss doesn’t care either. Outta sight, outta mind, eh?

    2. Hi Mark – My name is Ramses and I oversee the Adopt A Street program for SF Public Works. I apologize if you submitted an application and did not hear from our team. This past month, we’ve been facing a supply backlog for our tools related to the AAS program and it has delayed our ability to on-board new members. I’ve asked our staff to review our cue of applications and reach out to you directly. If, for some reason, we don’t have a “Mark” in our application list, please feel free to e-mail me and I can help you take part in the program. You can also call me directly at 415-641-2349.

      I hope to hear from you soon.

      1. I would love to help out and pick up trash with you all once in awhile. I’m 62 but youd never know it by looking at me. I feel very strongly that we all have to do our part to help clean up the city. OUR city.

  2. For the past 4 or 5 decades, San Francisco’s strategy for getting rid of trash focused on reducing labor costs; for example replacing human street sweepers with mechanical ones. Similarly, whereas Newsom’s brilliant contribution (cutting the number of trash cans) obviously reduced the cost in terms of cans, at least of equal importance it the labor costs of picking up trash from and around the cans. We won’t get clean streets if we don’t pay people (not Recology, please, not Recology) to pick up the trash. It is hilarious that DPW doesn’t regard sidewalks as their responsibility.

    1. isn’t it literally in the city codes that the sidewalks are adjacent property owner responsibility? we’ve been hearing that for years

      1. my landlord pays a nice elderly lady to sweep in front of our building. I doubt he pays her more than $50 because he offered me less to take out the garbage cans every week haha. I assumed the property owners are supposed to take care of the area around their buildings – seems like almost everyone on my street does this in any case. and our street is relatively nice for the most part I guess, compared to many streets. also, qhy are people throwing trash on the streets – were they raised in a barn?

  3. Clean streets exploits poor drug addicted and homeless people by paying them in $400 gift cards and vouchers for working 20hrs a week even while raining to clean human sewage needles and trash. They can’t even give these people the recognition that they deserve. They get to pay people well below minimum wage while still looking like martyrs.

    1. “Exploitation”? That sounds like $20 an hour. I believe that minimum wage in San Francisco is $16.32. So, I would commend Clean SF for putting people to work. I would not be in favor of giving anyone who is drug addicted and homeless cash as there is a likelihood that that money would be used on dangerous and deadly drugs.

  4. Thank you for this article. The trash is San Francisco breaks my heart. I notice that the problem of litter and debris in the streets of San Francisco varies greatly by neighborhood. It is worse under the freeways, in the Mission, the Tenderloin, SOMA, Civic Center and the Castro than say Pac Heights, the Marina, Forest Glen, the Sunset,and the Richmond. I wonder why this is? Do you think homeless encampments contribute to the problem of litter and debris?

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