San Francisco upgraded its power washing of Market Street sidewalks from twice a month to 20 times per month, a rate increasingly hard on the street’s homeless population.
What’s worse than waking up at 4 am every morning? Waking up at 4 am every morning and watching someone soak your bed with cold water. Unfortunately, if you’re homeless and you sleep on Market Street, this recurring nightmare is your reality.
Each morning Tuesday through Saturday, two crews that are made up of employees from the Department of Public Works (DPW) and the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) clean the sidewalks of Market Street with trash buckets and pressurized water. To start the cleaning, SFPD officers walk down Market Street, wake up sleeping homeless persons, help move them to a water-free area, then signal DPW cleaning trucks to start.
“It’s a routine,” said Phil Mastrocola, an early-morning observer of this new policy. “It’s the same thing every morning.”
This routine takes around 5 hours. Operations go along Market Street, from the Embarcadero to Van Ness Avenue. Near the Embarcadero, homeless people have an easier time moving because of more available space to relocate. Near Van Ness Avenue, the move is more difficult because of less available space. To compensate here, SFPD helps groups of homeless temporarily store their belonging in a nearby vacant parking lot. After the cleaning finished, the relocated homeless were able to move back to their original sleeping areas.
Witnesses said that SFPD and DPW do allow as much time as needed for the homeless to pack up and move. Witnesses also said that the SFPD sometimes offered to “lower the homeless persons’ real estate,” which means officers would help throw away anything the person may not need any more.
“Police and DPW were compassionate,” said Kelley Cutler, another observer of the street cleaning operations on Market Street. “They know it’s a shitty situation. They are all just going through the motions.”
A Drastic Change for All
One day at the Embarcadero, a homeless man named Seamus struggled to not only move his belongings, but to also move his back, which was hunched over and curved like a thin moon. Draped over him was a blue, black-stained blanket, the top of which covered his shoulders and the bottom of which touched the ground. SFPD waited over 20 minutes for Seamus to collect his belongings that included clothes, liquor bottles, a pair of binoculars and old shoes. After putting the items back into his shopping cart, Seamus pushed off Market Street and to a corner one block away. Then SFPD waved at a group of DPW trucks to move forward and clean.
This street and sidewalk cleaning routine is not unusual for the city, but the frequency is highly unusual. Most city streets are washed two times per month, but, with this new policy that was approved in September, 2013, Market Street is now cleaned 20 times per month. Two times per month as opposed to 20 times per month means a 1,000 percent frequency increase.
SFPD and DPW employees on the cleanup crew will spend the majority of their shift on this single task. Therefore, this 20-time-per-month task is being completed by city employees, which means taxpayers are paying for this new cleaning process, which means taxpayers are spending their money to soak the same sidewalks with cold water for five hours per day, five days per week. Witnesses have observed up to five SFPD officers and six DPW trucks at a singal cleaning location.
Would the majority of taxpayers want to wash Market Street at a 1,000 percent greater frequency than most other streets? Would they want to spend money to displace homeless people at 4 AM to spray the sidewalks with water? Why this drastic change of cleaning policies on Market Street?
Some have suggested that the city was pressured by the recent influx of wealthy business and tech employees, who work on Market Street, between the Embarcadero and Van Ness Avenue. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, complaints to the city about the cleanliness of Market Street had increased. These complaints seem to have been satisfied by the new program: Since the program’s inception, complaints have decreased by one-third.
But by law, the cleanliness of sidewalks is the responsibility of the fronting property owner. Therefore, the employees who work in the properties on Market Street should be contacting property owners to clean their sidewalks, should they find the cleaning necessary. Instead, taxpayers are left with the exorbitant cleaning bill.
Details of the new program seem to align well with business and tech hours. Typically, business and tech employees arrive to work between 8 AM and 9 AM, or exactly when the cleaning is complete – exactly when the homeless have been hidden out of view. Also, the new program runs weekday mornings, or exactly the days these employees travel down Market.
The Current Result
Many long-time Market Street homeless residents have permanently relocated farther outside the center of the city to avoid the cold water and early wake-up calls.
“It’s sad,” Kelley Cutler said. “There is a sense of hopelessness from all sides. It seems that the SFPD doesn’t want to be there, and the homeless don’t want them there. SFPD doesn’t want to spend their whole shift cleaning sidewalks, and the homeless don’t want to be wet and tired.”
But the cleaning process continues. Neither the DPW nor the city could be reached for comment on the future of the program. The office of Mayor Ed Lee did not respond to emailed questions. Some say that the program seems to be indefinite.
The Final Result
There once was a pink and purple floral-patterned chair that sat on the sidewalk of Market Street. Now that chair is a dumpster somewhere. Trash they called it. But to some without a home, it was a nice spot to sit. With the flower cloth gone, the wooden legs laid to rest, Market Street has become a yawn. No chairs live there anymore. No cushioned seats remain. A city once so full of life and character is now beginning to lose its flame.