On a dreary Tuesday morning, lower Valencia Street is deserted, save for a small group gathered on the sidewalk between 25th and 26th streets. Across the street from the regal green mortuary, a wiry man with a neon yellow vest, apparently their leader, coordinates.
“I’ll take Bartlett.” — “I’ll walk up Valencia.” — “You do the cross streets.”
People chime in, laugh, and the mood is cheery, despite the dismal weather. They take a photo, clutching trash pickers and large Giants-themed bags, and the group pairs off and disperses. Vincent Yuen, the man in charge, heads west on 25th Street.
Within a few steps, there’s garbage to be picked, and Yuen tries to get it all: Every cigarette, each scrap of paper, he even painstakingly collects individual shards of plastic, the remains of an object smashed on the sidewalk. Some days, he counts every piece of trash he collects.
“I’m the most thorough and anal about this stuff,” says Yuen, a lanky 40 year-old who, after little involvement in civic affairs, has become an enthusiast for the power of volunteering. In terms of trash, he has decided, no other neighborhood in the city offers a better ground zero for developing a model to clean up the city’s streets than the Mission District: It’s dense, has numerous commercial corridors, and is awash in trash.
Though his new job is a pay cut from what he used to do, Yuen is clearly in his element here, throwing out fantasies of a Ferris Bueller-type trash-picking parade. On the summer solstice, he’s thinking about live streaming himself on a day-long cleanup: “On a mission on Mission” he calls it.
On Tuesday morning, he diligently tries to lift a flattened cardboard box with his picker, and after a few failed attempts, he grabs it with his hands and stuffs it into his bin.
This day, Yuen is out with Clean Streets, a small Mission District operation originally run by a Mission resident who collected dues from his neighbors to pay for block-by-block cleaning.
Earlier this year, Yuen took over the reins at Clean Streets after it lost its single employee and its founder didn’t have the time to find someone new. By then, Yuen was already a figure in the trash world: Last year he launched Refuse Refuse, a low-barrier volunteer cleanup effort that hosts group trash pickup events around the city.
“So I’m here every Tuesday, and then [the] rest of my week’s all over the place, I’ll run clean-ups,” Yuen said. “I have an agreement with my wife that, on the weekends, I only do one weekend cleanup per month … I’m not always good at sticking to that.”
Trash wasn’t always the focus of Yuen’s days. A few years ago, he was a sales consultant with an office, employees and interns. Then, the pandemic kept his kids at home in the Richmond District. Yuen, out of work and collecting unemployment, looked for ways to keep them entertained. Picking up trash was, evidently, a hit.
One day, a man peered out his window and offered to help Yuen and his two children as they picked up trash. This planted the idea to attract more volunteers, and eventually, that idea grew into Refuse Refuse.
Now, a year later, he’s found himself with a full-time trash gig, and is paid to run the program by Together SF. And, in taking over Clean Streets, he’s turned his focus to the Mission District, where the trash problem is dire compared to many parts of the city.
Though he’s not from the neighborhood (“I mean, I came here in my twenties to party, get burritos,” he laughs), Yuen sees there is a need for cleaning in the Mission, and once he figures out how to tackle it, he expects he’ll expand to other areas.
Getting everyone to play a part, though, isn’t easy. San Francisco business owners and residents are responsible for managing litter that collects on their sidewalks, but it’s common to see people step around rubbish that piles up faster than people, or the Department of Public Works, can pick it up.
“It’s hard when you’re in a place like Valencia or Mission; it comes back so fast,” Yuen said. “A lot of them do [clean] it in the morning; by the time it’s the afternoon, it looks like it was before.”
And getting individual residents to take responsibility is a tough sell, but if anyone can relate, it’s Yuen. His level of commitment to San Francisco these days is worlds apart from his past life. For years, he never felt particularly inclined to volunteer or get engaged. Although he’s lived in San Francisco since 2003, Yuen said he didn’t know, until recently, who his supervisor was or which way to vote.
That’s why he has high hopes for his model under Refuse Refuse, which he said is based on a similar project in Japan. Making it easier to get involved increases the chances of getting people off their couch to give back, Yuen said, whether it’s people like him who never volunteered, or people who don’t know where to begin their civic engagement.
Neighborhood organizations, businesses, or even individuals can organize a Refuse Refuse cleanup. In the Mission, Manny’s hosts weekly cleanups, Mission Merchants Association does a monthly cleanup, and three residents host their own recurring cleanups out of Dog Eared Books.
And, while Yuen doesn’t believe “throwing money at the problem” is necessarily the solution, Yuen came to realize that some people, because of other commitments or disabilities, aren’t able to volunteer. So he got on board with the Clean Streets model of residents paying for their blocks to be cleaned. He is working to bolster its staffing and, ultimately, the program’s reach.
This week, he put out two-sided door hangers to notify residents and businesses of his efforts: How to volunteer with Refuse Refuse on one side, and how to activate Clean Streets service on the other.
“It’s great when people sponsor a block,” Yuen said. “The challenge is, how would you build it to scale?” Gaps in service blocks make the workers’ hours spent inefficient, and ineffective when one block is clean but the next is filthy.
He’s already making progress. In his brief time in the Mission, he estimates at least a 25 to 50 percent decrease in the number of trash bags collected each cleaning session, allowing workers to cover more space in a given session.
“When you regularly clean the street, it gets a lot cleaner,” Yuen said.
And the operation is growing. Yuen has four employees, where Clean Streets originally had just one. One employee is unhoused and brings along his friend, another is in a work-program at his rehab center, and a woman named Kathleen McNamera from the Castro pitches in; she got overwhelmed trying to pick up trash regularly by herself.
“I started picking up trash on my own, just in my neighborhood … and then I got depressed because there was so much, and it was just constant,” McNamara said. “And so then I started looking around, thinking I wanted to just do it with other people. And then I found this.”
Surfacing from an alley with a stuffed bag in hand, McNamara jokes with her fellow worker, Travis Choyce, about the time a resident thought they were coming to ticket him for his trash.
“Just coming out here, helping [Yuen] with this and seeing his passion for it and how much he put into it, just made me want to do it more and just see where it go,” said Choyce, who is currently in treatment for an alcohol addiction. He has been working with Yuen through Choyce’s rehab center for two months.
Clean Streets workers get paid $30 an hour, and currently hit about 20 blocks in the Mission, including a few where residents haven’t specifically requested service.
Vanguard Properties, a business at 21st and Mission streets, recently agreed to sponsor four city blocks, or 16 normal-sized blocks, as part of a three-month trial. In the trial period, Yuen plans to collect data to prove to residents of the Mission that his work is having an impact, and get more people on board. He hopes more organizations like Calle 24 will join in, and per-person costs will go down.
“You rep San Francisco, and you say you love San Francisco. But I never demonstrated that,” Yuen said. “I didn’t show my love for San Francisco.”
Now, he is making up for years past.
April is the Department of the Environment’s Climate Action Month. To get involved, visit: http://climateactionmonth.com/