Over the last year or two, San Francisco has become notorious for having some of the dirtiest major city blocks in the United States. In fact, things have gotten so bad that the city has employed full-time workers that it pays almost $200,000 per year to clean up human feces on the ground which, along with heroin needles and litter, have put the city streets into total disarray.
The New York Times was the latest to highlight what, exactly, life was like on Hyde Street, one of the dirtiest streets in the city. The area is just 15 minutes away from technology giants like Twitter and Uber, yet you’d never know by looking at it. The worst parts of Hyde Street are in the middle of the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood. And according to the Times, for the people who called this block home, it’s “difficult to reconcile San Francisco’s liberal politics with the misery that surrounds them.”
The 300 block of Hyde Street received 2227 complaints about cleanliness over the past decade, which was enough to register as more than any other block. The Times revisited this block several times throughout the course of 12 hours between 2PM and 2AM on a weekday and found the mentally ill, the drug addicted and residents who are at their wit’s end.
And the implementation of the “poop patrol” can only do so much. The Times bumped into Yolanda Warren, who is a city resident that works around the corner from this block on Hyde Street. As she was getting her children off to school, the sidewalk in front of her office was “stained with feces and smelled like a latrine”.
She, like many in the city, is forced to hose down the sidewalk every morning. Despite the city installing restrooms for the homeless, it hasn’t stopped them from going to the bathroom in the streets.
Warren told the Times: “Some parts of the Tenderloin, you’re walking, and you smell it and you have to hold your breath.”
San Francisco now has around 4400 homeless people. Over the past three years, it has replaced more than 300 lamp posts that have been corrupted by dog and human urine. The urgency for this effort accelerated after a lamp post collapsed in 2015. Heroin needles are also a danger: the public works department and a nonprofit organization that helps them picked up 100,000 needles from the streets of the Tenderloin neighborhood over the last year. The city’s public health department, which has its own needle recovery program, retrieved 164,264 needles in August alone through a disposal program and street cleanups.
One property manager in the area, Larry Gothberg, has managed a building on Hyde Street since 1982 and has kept a photographic journal of heroin users on the streets. He showed reporters from the Times a number of pictures of addicts sitting around motionless. He called it “the heroin freeze”. He said, “They can stay that way for hours”.
The tenderloin neighborhood is an area of older subsidized single occupancy apartment buildings, laundromats and organizations that are set up to help the indigent. Studio apartments there are about $1500 a month, which is on the low-end of a city where the median rent is $4500 a month. Many of the residents of the area are immigrant families. Drug users in the area are supplied by dealers who sell heroin, crack cocaine and amphetamines. This leads to obvious disputes and, occasionally, violence.
Adam Leising, a Hyde Street resident, told the Times: “It’s like the land of the living dead. We are the most advanced country in the world, and that’s what people are having to live with here.”
Leising said that after having to look at the street on a daily basis, usually walking home after finishing his shift at a nearby restaurant, the desperation brought him to the brink of depression. In response, he helped found the Lower Hyde Street association, which is a nonprofit organization that tries to help clean up the street. He feels that the city isn’t doing anything to rectify the drug problem because it doesn’t want to spread the problem throughout other parts of the city.
The Tenderloin police station has, so far this year, made more than 3000 arrests, including 424 for dealing drugs. They called drug dealing the most significant issue impacting the quality of life in the neighborhood. A police spokeswoman for the Tenderloin neighborhood called it a “priority area”. Gavin Newsom, who is running for governor next month, stated last month that the city had reached a point of “enough is enough”.
The mayor, London Breed, was elected in June and has since announced plans to provide 1000 additional beds for the homeless over the next two years. Her first objective is to use the law in order to place some people into “conservatorship”, which is involuntary removal from the streets for those who are mentally ill.
She told the Times “There are about 100 to 150 people who are clearly mentally ill and who are cycling through the system and who need to be forced into conservatorship. We know all of them.”
Her office states that 12% of the people who use the services from the city’s Department of Public Health account for 73% of the costs. She has also made inspections of neighborhoods, sometimes carrying a broom with her.
Other business owners, like Glenn Gustafik, who opened his barbershop on Hyde two years ago to escape the high rent of operating downtown, have been engaged in a battle with drug users. The homeless outside of his shop break the branches off of a tree and use the sticks to clean their pipes. He has gone through four trees outside of his shop because of this. After making a request to the city, they provided a fifth tree with wire mesh around it to protect it.
As the evening comes around, the 300 block of Hyde becomes somewhat of a flea market. People on the street sell everything from bikes to individually shrink wrapped steaks. When dawn rolls around, the city and other private organizations pick up the needles and the trash. It costs the city $70 million annually.
Mario Montoya Jr., who has worked in the city’s Public Works Department for 30 years, concluded:
“By noon everybody is up and out, and here we go again.”