Written By: Jeff Winkle
Creator of The Clean Mission initiative
San Francisco is the best city in the country for a lot of reasons. The beauty of the streets and uniqueness of the architecture is unsurpassed by any other metropolitan area. It perfectly embodies the multicultural identity of the United States and its residents find comfort in the diversity around them. When you walk from neighborhood to neighborhood, the weather and altitude isn’t the only thing that changes; you can find yourself in the middle of North Beach and feel like you’re walking down an Italian street, or grab a quick meal in the Mission District and confuse your surroundings with Mexico City. You also have the ability to run to the beach on a Saturday morning or cross the Golden Gate bridge to find incredible hiking trails. Plus, San Francisco has about 2% unemployment and would be in the top 25 countries by GDP. In many ways, it sounds like the utopia of a mature democratic society.
So how come I always get the same two questions from friends or family that are visiting the city on the first day they arrive:
—Why are there so many more homeless people here compared to other major cities?
—And why is there so much trash on the streets?!
The truth is I don’t have a good answer to those questions. They are complicated issues stemmed from a long history of decision-making by the government of San Francisco, and unintended consequences that came as a result of those decisions. I’ve spent a lot of time looking backwards at the road that led us to this point, but I will reserve those details for 10-20 other articles for those interested. Right now, we need to become really thoughtful about what we can control: the present and the future.
We’ve all seen the “present state” of the city of San Francisco… Beautiful buildings, wonderful people, and lots of jobs juxtaposed with an astounding homeless population and the need to watch where you are walking at all times so you don’t step on trash or human feces. The key concept to understand with those two issues is the fact that they are complicated and intertwined. To explain what I mean, consider the economic incentive for homeless people to collect as many plastic bottles as possible to recycle them for the 10 cent refund. For someone living in a world where every penny counts, it is a prudent use of time for them to rummage through every public and private trash can in the city for bottles they can turn into income. The problem is, they don’t have much regard for placing that garbage back where they found it. This leaves a pile of trash on the sidewalk on a good day and a tsunami of loose garbage around the adjacent streets on a windy day.
We are living through a time where citizens and those that represent them are quick to support extremely simple solutions to extremely complicated issues. Kids are bringing guns to schools? Let’s just give them see-through backpacks. There’s a drug problem in the US? A border wall will fix that! In a progressive city like San Francisco, we need to look at issues holistically and become concerned with practical solutions that attack the issues head-on.
Which is why a solution for the future requires an initiative that tackles both problems simultaneously. For this, I look to the city of Fort Worth, Texas for inspiration and a roadmap to follow which addresses these exact issues. Their local government piloted a program that pays homeless people to pick up litter around the city to move towards eradicated both problems. It works towards a world where the urban area is trash-free while also providing the homeless individuals with dignity and purpose. Plus, it provides an income stream which may allow them to rise out of their circumstance and work towards their goals.
The program in Fort Worth has been launched on a small scale but has been incredibly successful. 40 homeless individuals were hired in 2017 and they amassed an astounding 3,856 tons of trash collected. Local news in Fort Worth also dives into the story of one such individual who moved into his own apartment after 23 months living in a homeless shelter as a direct result of this program.
Fort Worth isn’t the only city implemented this type of program either. San Diego launched a program called ‘Wheels of Change’ earlier this year which has similar goals and provides access to housing resources to the workers as well. Chicago, Denver, and Albuquerque have also instituted similar programs with great success.
I looked for comparable types of programs in the Bay Area with no success, so I started an initiative about a year ago called “The Clean Mission” (Instagram: @CleanMissionSF) that is attempting to improve the cleanliness of the streets of San Francisco. We hold consistent cleanup events and mobilize energized volunteers to pickup garbage on the weekends. However, I view these cleanup events as short-term bandaids to a larger problem and, as The Clean Mission works towards long-term solutions, we hope to have well-funded government efforts working in parallel to create a cleaner city that can be sustained for the next generations.
With a new mayor in the city, I am hopeful she will formulate plans that do more than throw money at the issue in an uncoordinated way as we have seen in some cases in the past. What we need right now is strong leadership and we call on London Breed and other elected officials to look to programs like that in Fort Worth, Texas as inspiration for a comprehensive plan that can make the city streets cleaner.