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They shift tons of trash from San Francisco’s streets: You’ve never heard of them

SoMa West Community Benefit District member Enrique Cervantes disposes of collected trash into his roving cart in San Francisco on June 1, 2023. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

In April, the SoMa West Community Benefit District picked up more than 35 tons of trash, or nearly 71,000 pounds of garbage. In 2021, Tenderloin Community Benefit District cleaners gathered a whopping 146 tons, or 292,600 pounds, of waste.

San Francisco is home to 17 of these organizations, most of which are concentrated in the city’s densely populated Downtown core. It sounds like a lot of political jargon, and that’s because it is.

But community benefit districts, or CBDs, play a crucial role in the city: They clean streets—sometimes faster than the Department of Public Works (DPW)—and connect community members in SF’s often-chaotic commercial and mixed-use neighborhoods.

You might even pay for a CBD to operate in your neighborhood, but you’d only know about it if you own your home and pay close attention to your property tax bill, where a special assessment is listed that covers the CBD’s costs.

A Tenderloin Community Benefit District member power-washes a sidewalk in the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco on June 2, 2023. | Jason Henry for The Standard

Some Downtown CBDs say they’re growing fast as cleanliness issues across the city intensify. Some even offer homeless outreach services, and others have established safety programs for kids and seniors.

The Tenderloin CBD began in 2005 with a strong focus on cleaning the streets; now, it is doing much more than bagging trash.

“Our goals have expanded, and our mission has expanded beyond clean,” said Kate Robinson, executive director of the Tenderloin CBD. “It’s a part of what we focus on, but our rootedness in residential leadership and community engagement has not changed.”

Here’s how these groups work. 

‘98% of the 311 Calls in the Tenderloin’

Formed as stop-gaps to help business owners in busy, high-trash areas, the groups have grown into vital safety nets, increasingly taking on city responsibilities.

“We're the last resort and the first responder and the safety net for broken city policies—or state policies, not just the city,” said Christian Martin, executive director of the SoMa West CBD.

A SoMa West Community Benefit District member makes a call outside the organization's office on Howard Street in San Francisco on June 1, 2023. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

“The city is not supposed to do less in your neighborhood because you have a CBD—they’re not supposed to punish areas that establish these things, which are supposed to supplement city services,” he added.

The city’s overdose crisis and its cleanliness issues worsened during the pandemic, but a 2012 city report shows CBDs have long outperformed other San Francisco agencies in providing cleaning, public safety and community-based services. Recent data shows they continue to do so.

READ MORE: San Francisco’s Streets Are Filthy. A New Survey Shows Just How Dirty

“Public Works still provides the baseline services, but the CBDs are supposed to be above and beyond what that baseline is,” said Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon. “If they can get to a call quicker than we can, they have boots on the ground in the neighborhoods there, then that's helpful.” 

Some CBDs say they’ve given up on requesting certain city services and have taken matters into their own hands: SoMa West built its own app to track 311 cleaning calls and initiate service requests, and cleaning crew captains say reporting incidents to city agencies would take too long.

“We are right now responding to 98% of the 311 calls in the Tenderloin,” Robinson said. “Our response time is within hours, whereas DPW’s response time is significantly higher. But we do view our relationship with DPW as a partnership: They really focus on issues that we can’t.”

A street sweeper from SoMa West Community Benefit District sits parked on Howard Street in San Francisco on June 1, 2023. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

In neighborhoods like the Tenderloin or SoMa, rampant drug use and encampments spread out along the streets have added to the CBD workload.

In Hanif Hakeem’s three years as the sole homeless outreach worker for the West SoMa group, he’s helped numerous homeless people find beds, food and other resources.

Though Hakeem says some housed residents might carry misconceptions or stigmas against their homeless neighbors, “we find out their names,” Hakeem said. 

“We form a relationship with them because, who knows, later on down the line, they may want help. Because we were nice and cool with them, they’ll be more willing to work with us,” Hakeem added.  

Street ambassadors like Hakeem, who was formerly homeless, believe the on-the-ground efforts of local CBDs are crucial to helping strained city departments. But some of the Downtown CBD leaders worry the city might be relying too heavily on them to fix all of San Francisco’s compounding problems. 

“It’s gotten worse. It’s become more of a business,” Hakeem said. “They keep on doing Band-Aids—they keep giving people Band-Aids when they clearly need surgery. And that kind of hurts.

“Naw, that’s minimizing it. That shit hurts,” Hakeem added.  

ASK THE STANDARD: 6 of San Francisco’s Most Common Homelessness Questions, Answered

People walk past others lying on the sidewalk.
Members of San Francisco’s Homeless Outreach Team perform wellness check-ups and distribute food to people lying on Jones Street in the Tenderloin on Dec. 17, 2021. | James Wyatt

What Is a CBD?

What is believed to be the first CBD was formed in 1969 in Canada. Some 20 years later, California passed legislation to allow for these organizations to form in the state.

San Francisco is now home to 17 different CBDs or Business Improvement Districts, which operate as nonprofit liaisons between city officials and residents. Most are cleanliness-oriented, but some—such as the SF Tourism Improvement District—are designed to bolster business and travel in select neighborhoods. 

Any community can opt-in to form a CBD—it just requires gathering and organizing enough property owners to agree to pay assessment fees. Once a community gets property owners’ approval, the neighborhood then creates the CBD as a nonprofit, and the organization distributes assessment funds for various improvements.

“So when there's a CBD, basically the property owners are paying the CBD to take on their responsibility to keep their sidewalk clean,” said Andrea Aiello, director of the Castro CBD.  Aiello noted that city and state code requires property owners to clean the area around their property. The CBDs, Aiello says, step in to ease some of the burden from busy residents. 

These cleaning efforts range from graffiti abatement to clearing bulky items from the streets and are in addition to routine services carried out by the Department of Public Works and Recology. 

“When I first started, it was a lot more messier than now. I think on one of my first days, in one spot, I was able to get 30, almost 40 bags [of trash]—one spot!” said Enrique Cervantes, a cleanup ambassador at the SoMa West CBD. “Now, I hardly do that.”

SoMa West Community Benefit District member Enrique Cervantes pushes his roving cart used for cleaning in San Francisco on June 1, 2023. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard