An 11-day deep cleaning effort at the troubled 16th and Mission BART station last month left the plaza with a new, impermeable floor, less grime and — to the chagrin of some of those using the public space on a daily basis — no benches.
While the makeover has in many ways left the transit hub in better shape — the number of janitors servicing the station has doubled and pressure washing hours are expected to quadruple in the coming weeks — the removal of some half a dozen benches that lined the plaza has stirred concerns that BART could be sending an anti-homeless message to the plaza’s regulars.
“They don’t want the homeless people hanging out. They don’t want the people coming here feeding the homeless,” said a woman who gave her name as Sunshine Sherry, and who is homeless. “I think that it’s really cruel of them to just take the benches away without notice. This is not just a hangout — For some people, this is the only place that a person has that is safe and lit up at night, and there is always movement.”
A BART spokesperson confirmed that the benches were temporarily removed in the cleanup, and would return to the plaza, but was unable to offer a timeline.
The transit hub has long drawn residents of the area, both housed and unhoused, who congregated there throughout the day and night, as well as nonprofits and food sharing programs serving those in need.
But in more recent years, it has also drawn the attention of city leaders who found the unsanitary conditions at the plaza — including piling trash, the stench of urine and roosting pigeons — unacceptable.
“We have the responsibility to make it a safe and hygienic place and right now, that is not the case,” said Mission District Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who said the the plaza’s worsening conditions had long been ignored by city agencies.
Last fall, Ronen and BART board member Bevan Dufty called attention to the problem by launching a campaign to clean it themselves.
Dufty said that a recent “audit of cleanliness at all BART stations” showed that the Downtown and 16th Street stations “needed more services.”
“Last October, there were no full time janitors at this station,” he said. “They had split shifts at 24th and 16th Street BART stations. Nothing was happening there.”
The plaza cleanup campaign culminated last month with a closure of 60 percent of the western plaza at 16th Street to allow for thorough pressure washing by BART employees. A contractor hired by BART then leveled the plaza’s uneven asphalt and coated it with thermoplast, which repels liquids rather than absorbing them.
The bright blue benches, which rarely stood empty, disappeared in that process.
Nearly two weeks after their removal, many have returned to the public space equipped with crates and lawn chairs.
Some of the churches and nonprofits serving the area’s homeless also brought replacement seating for their clients.
“I think they don’t want poor people hanging around in public spaces. There just aren’t that many places in San Francisco to sit down, and they are trying to make it harder here,” said Eddie Stiel, a Mission resident and volunteer with Food Not Bombs, which runs a food-sharing program at the BART plaza every Thursday. “Cleaning is fine, we all deserve clean public spaces, but it doesn’t require taking away the benches.”
Paul Boden, Director of the homeless advocacy group Western Regional Advocacy Project, said that the plaza’s use isn’t just limited to homeless individuals.
“Here, there a lot of [Single Room Occupancy hotel] residents — it wasn’t just homeless people. It was neighborhood people, seniors — but a lot of black people, poor people,” he said. “The benches are for certain people in this city, and when other people are sitting in them, they gotta come out.”
Boden said that “the idea of making it architecturally uncomfortable” for people to exist in public spaces is not a new concept in San Francisco.
“All the bus shelters used to have a solid bench, now they flip up and have arms in them. That was all because people would sleep in them, under the bus shelter to protect themselves from the elements,” he said, adding that public seating has been removed from busy corridors such as Market Street over the years. “It’s a cold blooded interpretation to what it means to clean up a neighborhood.”
Ronen said this wasn’t the intention at 16th and Mission and her office is contemplating ways to activate the plaza, including through partnerships with longstanding Mission organizations “to bring culture, art and music to the plaza, to make it a place that people can feel proud of.”
Starting in January, a homeless outreach team will be dedicated to serving the 16th and 24th Street BART plazas in the Mission, working to connect the homeless to services. Funding for the additional resources will be split between BART and the City, she said.
“Cleaning up means the unsanitary conditions and make sure that people that need help are getting access to services and Navigation Centers if they need it,” said Ronen. “There was never any discussion to remove the benches in a permanent way. My expectation is that BART did that to replace the ground, and is bringing them back.”