Editor's note: This post includes a clarification.
So here's a San Francisco we hear about all the time: one of the richest, most inventive cities in the world. One that boasts it's the most cultured, the most graceful, the fairest of them all.
And here's a San Francisco we walk through every day: a place where many streets and alleys reek because, despite all its smarts and the vast sums it has spent on "the homeless problem," the city has been unable to figure out how to provide the public -- tourists, passers-by and the resident street population alike -- with a safe, decent place to go to the toilet.
You know the result: The aforementioned reek and lots of places where you need to be careful not to step in random piles of you-know-what.
But maybe -- maybe -- something's changing on the street.
Leaving the 16th and Mission BART Station around noon Tuesday, I encountered a small crew setting up portable toilets that had just been towed to a parking spot on a trailer. What's the deal?
They're part of a city Department of Public Works program, run under contract with the San Francisco Clean City Coalition, to operate and maintain street toilets in neighborhoods where there's a demonstrated need. And 16th Street near Mission is the epicenter of one such area.
I availed myself of the facility -- out of two parts need and one part curiosity -- and found that it compared favorably with the usual condition of my bathroom at home.
One of the people monitoring the mobile toilet, which consists of two separate units and is called the Mission Pit Stop, was Gia Grant, executive director of the the Clean City Coalition. That's a workforce development program aimed largely at ex-offenders and formerly homeless San Franciscans that does "cleaning, greening and beautification" projects like graffiti abatement and steam-cleaning sidewalks.
Grant said the 16th Street facility, which will be in place from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. every weekday, is the newest of half a dozen pit stops the city has set up so far. Three others are operating in the Tenderloin, one is on Sixth Street between Market and Mission, another is on Castro Street. On average, Grant said, between 80 and 100 people a day use each of the Tenderloin toilets.
The cost for the 16th Street Pit Stop is $50,000 through the end of 2015, Grant said, a sum split by the San Francisco Department of Public Works and BART.
The program, which is slated to expand to two locations in the Haight later this year, involves much more than simply towing the two-stall mobile toilets to a parking spot and leaving it there. Each of the pit stops is staffed by an attendant who monitors use, enforces a five-minute time limit and makes sure the facility stays clean. Each of the mobile facilities gets a thorough cleaning at the end of each day.
"It's staff-intensive, resource-intensive to do this, but you've got to start somewhere," Grant said.
The program is also operating the elaborate JCDecaux toilet at the southwest corner of 16th and Mission (open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.). Grant said use of that "self-cleaning" facility, notorious in the neighborhood as an occasional hookup spot and shooting gallery since it was installed 20 years ago, has increased from 20 visits a day to more than 80 visits a day.
"We've got to change the culture," Grant said about the Decaux toilet and others like it downtown. "They're just not being used properly. Why have them there if they're not going to be available for people who need to use the bathroom?"
Grant acknowledges that the pit stops "are just one piece in the puzzle" of providing a basic necessity to San Franciscans -- "a space where people can use the restroom in a safe and dignified way. For me, it's like a human right."
Not everyone shares that opinion, though. As it happened, the new pit stop is set up in front of a restaurant. And while I was standing there talking to Grant, two staffers and a patron, who said she was speaking on behalf of the staff, approached her and said the smell from the mobile restrooms would drive customers away.
Grant listened and tried to reassure them that the facility would be kept spotlessly clean and that odor hasn't been a problem with the Clean City restrooms elsewhere. The restaurant staff seemed unconvinced -- even though the alternative is having people using the street itself as a toilet.