One of the wealthiest cities in the world is also struggling to get a handle on homelessness and a lack of accessible toilets. Enter Snapcrap, the app that allows passerbys to report the messes directly to the city.
(TNS) — It sounds like an episode of “Silicon Valley,” the HBO show that skewers computer programmers and their sometimes silly ideas.
A 24-year-old moves to San Francisco for a tech job, rents a room in a “hacker house” on Sixth Street, finds way too much poop on the sidewalk outside for his liking, and creates an app to report it. And, in the cherry on top of this smelly sundae, he names his creation Snapcrap.
Yes, the whole point of Sean Miller’s aptly named app is to snap a photo of crap and report it to the city for cleanup. In some cities, people whip out smartphones for selfies in front of gorgeous museums or stunning vistas. Here, we whip out our smartphones for poop pics.
It’s kind of funny on the surface, but in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, the fact that homeless people are relieving themselves on sidewalks, between parked cars and in planters because there are so few public toilets, is actually very serious.
The obvious answer is more restrooms, but supposedly innovative San Francisco is moving slowly on that front. While restrooms in libraries and parks and the city’s 24 Pit Stop toilets are available during the day, there are believed to be just 11 restrooms, those dark green ones operated by JCDecaux, available between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m.
It’s no surprise, then, that pedestrians have to two-step over so much human waste. People have reported a mind-boggling 24,456 incidents of feces to San Francisco’s 311 call center so far this year as of Wednesday. That’s up from 20,913 reports in all of 2017.
It’s even more serious considering that Monday marks the United Nations’ World Toilet Day, the annual call for basic sanitation facilities for all humans. According to the U.N., there are 892 million people around the world who defecate in the open, but the organization is talking mostly about people in sub-Saharan Africa, China and India — not Americans. And certainly not San Franciscans.
If it takes a young software engineer with an amusingly named app to bring attention to this problem, so be it.
“People make jokes about it all the time. I’ve made jokes. Everyone makes jokes,” Miller said. “But more and more, I’m realizing that it’s disgusting and, more importantly, these are people who are suffering every single day of their lives, 24/7. It’s really heartbreaking.”
Miller moved here from Vermont 18 months ago for an engineering job at Plivo, a software company. He used Craigslist to find a spot in a communal living space at Sixth and Howard streets run by oWow, the Oakland company that turns vacant buildings into affordable living quarters.
He immediately loved the shared room, for which he pays $1,000 a month, the communal living spaces and his 40 roommates. The sidewalks outside the funky, four-story dorm? Not so much.
“I had zero idea what I was moving into,” he said. It didn’t take him long to figure it out.
He tried using the city’s 311 app, but found it took too many steps to report any single problem, which meant he’d often just keep walking and leave the detritus unreported. So he and his housemates brainstormed alternatives and settled on Snapcrap.
It really couldn’t be easier. Snap a poop photo, and the app uses GPS to tag the offending pile’s location and report it to 311, which then relays it to Public Works. The Snapcrap user can select prewritten comments such as “I see poop” and “Help. I can’t hold my breath much longer.”
Unfortunately, Apple found the cartoon poop icon for the app questionable and has removed it temporarily from the app store while Miller comes up with a new, probably pixelated version. He said it should be available in the next few days. (If only officials found actual poop questionable and moved as quickly to remove it.)
I met Miller at his hacker house the other day, and we walked just 25 feet before finding a Snapcrap-worthy specimen in a gutter. It looked small and might have been a dog’s droppings, but we reported it nonetheless.
“No one’s ever going to clean that. Never,” Miller predicted. “If there’s a huge crap in front of City Hall on election day, you know they’d power-wash that for sure. But on Sixth Street? No.”
We kept walking and saw the evidence of a whole lot of waste that was never cleaned, but merely stepped in repeatedly and ground into the sidewalk.
Public Works is very aware of the problem and has launched its Poop Patrol to spot human waste and steam-clean it. It is running those 24 Pit Stop public restrooms that are staffed to avoid vandalism and has expanded some of their operating hours.
Rachel Gordon, spokeswoman for Public Works, said she likes the 311 app because it allows users to submit more information. For example, when reporting graffiti, users can add whether it has racial slurs or profanity, which would move it up the priority list for cleaning.
But still, she said the department welcomes Snapcrap if people find it easier to use.
She said public defecation is a hard problem to manage because some people — perhaps mentally ill or high — use the sidewalks even when Pit Stop toilets or other options are nearby.
“It just tells you there are challenges for people,” Gordon said. “There’s really a seriousness to this issue. We want people to be able to do it with dignity.”
On that front, Public Works and Lava Mae, the nonprofit that provides mobile shower stalls and restrooms for homeless people, are teaming up for Monday’s World Toilet Day.
Artist Anna Sergeeva has designed removable stickers reading “You Are Loved” that volunteers with Lava Mae will place on restrooms around the city.
“We want people to think about this issue of public access to hygiene from a perspective of compassion and empathy,” Sergeeva said.
She and Lava Mae have also created www.lovesticks.org, which encourages visitors to write to Mayor London Breed and members of the Board of Supervisors demanding more public toilets.
As for Miller, he’s busy managing his app, where users submit scores of poop reports every day. He’s gotten requests to expand it to New York, Seattle and San Diego. He plans to expand it to Los Angeles shortly.
He said he’s glad the city’s huge problem with human waste is getting attention from City Hall, but he doesn’t see any improvement on the sidewalks. In fact, it seems worse than when he moved from Vermont. That state, he said, feels a world away.
“In Vermont, if you want to sit down on a bench or on the grass or on the sidewalk, you would think, ‘What are the odds someone used this as a bathroom?’” he said. “Here, you would say, ‘What are the odds someone hasn’t?’”
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