Why is it so hard to keep San Francisco’s streets clean?

Some blame bureaucracy, others say it’s the residents’ fault

San Francisco is known for many things. Unfortunately, deteriorating street conditions is one of them.

A walk down Market Street on any given morning provides a glimpse into this stubborn reality.

A hodgepodge of various street cleaning crews, which all operate under the Department of Public Works, buzz around The City’s downtown corridors. They’re often identifiable from one another by the color of the garments they wear.

There’s Outreach and Enforcement, Pit Stop, Hot Spots and TLClean, among many others. Some sweep street corners or power-wash sidewalks. Others collect litter or wipe graffiti off storefronts. There are units dedicated to steaming trash cans, cleaning gutters and staffing public restrooms, as well as community ambassadors who liaise with neighborhood residents and businesses or inform people who might have slept nearby that street cleaning will soon begin.

They work next to one another, but not necessarily with one another, limited to clearly defined roles and silos. The result is often a Rubik’s cube lineup of blocks — some spotless and clean, others with unkempt litter or someone’s personal belongings stashed in corners. Come back the next morning, and even blocks cleaned the day before are likely to be soiled.

The sheer number of moving parts invokes San Francisco’s reputation of putting bureaucracy in front of progress, making it tricky for residents to know who to contact with a request or who to hold responsible if problems persist. One can’t help but wonder if this patchwork approach blunts the potential collective impact of a simpler alternative.

“We have the resources,” said Rodney Fong, president and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. “The problem is how they’re directed, the measurement of success, the accountability and the goals. That’s what’s really difficult.”

Downtown Streets Team workers collect trash on Market Street in the Mid-Market area. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Downtown Streets Team workers collect trash on Market Street in the Mid-Market area. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Street cleaning responsibilities will eventually be spun off to the yet-to-be-created Department of Streets and Sanitation as a result of Proposition B on last year’s ballot. For now, though, DPW oversees The City’s lengthy roster of street-cleaning crews. And the agency suggests individual actors, rather than its multifaceted approach to cleanup, are to blame for the persistent problem.

“Bad behavior is the biggest contributor, whether it’s people who illegally dump old furniture, construction debris or household trash; scavengers who rifle through garbage cans and toss what they don’t want onto the ground or litterbugs who casually drop their coffee cups and fast-food wrappers on the sidewalk,” DPW spokesperson Rachel Gordon said in an email. “Encampments also generate a lot of garbage.”

Street-cleaning operations collect more than 3.6 million pounds of trash citywide every month. Much of that is concentrated downtown, where dozens of crew members report for work before dawn every day to clear the streets.

According to DPW, the agency devotes nearly $94 million annually and 350 employees to street cleaning. Under the umbrella of street cleaning operations, it operates at least 15 distinct crews, contracting with nonprofits to provide additional staff and local relationships on some. Community benefit districts — partnerships in which property owners pay a fee that funds improvements supported by city government — add to the mix.

Through all of these entities, workers clean San Francisco’s streets seven days a week, starting in the wee hours of the morning and staying out late into the night. Yet even downtown, in many ways considered one of The City’s crown jewels, it’s not uncommon for individuals to encounter debris, graffiti, or human waste while sipping on their morning coffee.

The agency remains steadfast that having a kaleidoscope of street-cleaning crews serving different functions allows it to reach more corners of The City more effectively. Gordon compares it to a baseball team — every player has a different role in a shared team effort. She said this setup allows various crews to develop expertise in certain skills, and it facilitates partnership between The City and a variety of nonprofits who use the street-cleaning groups as workforce development for formerly incarcerated or homeless individuals, for example.

It also means DPW can run a number of programs simultaneously, giving some crews citywide responsibilities and allowing others to focus on certain neighborhoods that require more concentrated efforts. For example, there are regularly scheduled crews that go to “known hot spot neighborhoods” such as the Tenderloin, SoMa, the Mission, Bayview and Chinatown to remove illegally dumped waste, conduct manual street sweeping and do deep cleanings in alleys.

Others consistently handle commercial districts. CleanCorridors SF sends crews to a different neighborhood corridor every Thursday for a “deep-cleaning blitz” and to engage with business owners about their responsibilities to keep the premises clear.

Meanwhile, many teams are reserved for ad-hoc projects based on demand, often at the behest of reports from district supervisors, calls through the 311 hotline or recommendations from the streets teams themselves.

“All the work is coordinated,” Gordon said.

A Civic Center Community Ambassador works to remove graffiti at United Nations Plaza.<ins> (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)</ins>

A Civic Center Community Ambassador works to remove graffiti at United Nations Plaza. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Simple as that explanation might be to DPW insiders, the troubling reality of San Francisco’s streets remains. And local economic recovery could hinge on finding a solution to keep streets clean and safe for all.

Even before the pandemic, Moscone Center — the apex of San Francisco’s convention industry and providing overall economic impact estimated at $4.9 billion a year — was losing business. In 2019 alone, 35 future events were canceled, with hosts citing street blight and safety concerns as two of the top three reasons they were relocating events.

“If we want San Francisco to recover — and I’m not even talking about the high-level water mark, but to recover to a point where our residents feel safe and our businesses feel safe — the cleanliness and safety aspects of San Franciso need to improve greatly,” Fong said.

DPW acknowledges the project of street cleaning remains a work in progress. But it puts the onus on the behavior of residents who fail to act as good stewards of their city. Gordon rebukes the narrative that the agency’s internal disarray or fecklessness is to blame.

“In the short term, the goal of our street cleaning efforts is to progressively improve the cleanliness in The City’s public right of way,” she said. “In the long term, the goal is to see a meaningful culture change where people don’t trash the streets in the first place, so Public Works crews don’t have to work around the clock cleaning up the messes left by others.”


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