Robert Milton guesses his Public Works team picks up some 40,000 pounds of trash in San Francisco every day. On bad days, that figure nearly doubles, ballooning to the weight of a fully loaded semitruck.
In nearly 20 years of cleaning city streets, Milton has seen it all. On a Wednesday ride-along in the Bayview, The Standard got an inside view of the city’s fight against rampant illegal dumping.
It’s not just bagging trash: Milton and his crew regularly use bulldozers and dump trucks to clean Bayview’s filthy streets.
Milton has even called in hazmat teams to clear five-gallon buckets of feces left on the streets, and city officials say cleaning crews have had to deal with knives pulled on them and bottles of urine thrown at them.
“When I first started this job, we used to pick up piles [of trash], but not on the basis that we’re picking it up now,” Milton said. “It’s a heavier job now. Every now and then, a mattress or a couch—but this magnitude? This is heavy!”
Milton, a lifelong Bayview resident, leads the neighborhood’s illegal dumping cleanup crew, a team of eight city workers who tour the streets on a mission to make them clean again.
“I’m delighted to be back in my community because I do want to make a difference,” Milton said. “But it gets a little overwhelming. We’ll clean all of this up today, but just ride by here in the next day or two. It’ll be back.”
Illegal dumping is not a new problem in San Francisco, but it has persisted in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. Workers and residents say that as the pandemic raged on and the city’s struggles with homelessness and drug use worsened, dumping in the Bayview spiraled out of control.
“It’s a never-ending battle," Milton said. "We’re picking it up; they’re putting it out.”
At the end of the month, it’s not uncommon to see a few chairs, lamps or shoe racks left on the streets of San Francisco—in almost every neighborhood.
But technically, it’s illegal dumping, which the city defines as garbage left outside of bins or dumpsters. The city’s main trash contractor, Recology, will pick up bulky garbage for a small fee, yet city officials say some residents go out of their way to avoid paying for garbage pickup.
The Bayview has long been at the center of the crisis because of its industrial nature: People will gather mounds of debris and garbage and drop it off on quiet corners of the Bayview, where nobody will see—and nobody will enforce it.
“They’re predominantly dump sites also because, at night, a lot of those companies are closed,” Milton said. “You pull up there at 2 in the morning; who’s going to see you dump all this?”
The city says it has upped its efforts to tackle the growing issue, increasing its cleaning patrols, fining offenders $1,000 and spending nearly $2 million a year to tackle the Bayview’s dumping problem. But the city is fining significantly fewer offenders since before the pandemic, a department spokesperson said, due to a staffing shortage.
Residents and workers say the problem will persist so long as people continue to view the city as a free dumping ground and the Public Works staff as its maids.
“Those three years changed a lot,” Milton said. “And they changed people’s thinking.”
The Bayview dumping crew speculates that part of the problem is San Francisco’s unresolved tensions surrounding homelessness, drug use and enforcement.
“You have people in their residence, grab up their belongings and then dump them on the homeless,” said William Starks, a Bayview cleanup worker who says many of the trash piles are pulled apart and picked through, making it harder to clean.
Encampments, RV sites and spots where many homeless people stay in the Bayview tend to be hot spots for dumping, too, and city workers insist that unhoused people are often not the ones producing the trash. Business owners and construction sites, workers say, are behind most of the huge debris piles and black trash bags left behind. Workers often find receipts and other identifying information among the debris, which help them track down perpetrators.
“A lot of times they bring it by the homeless because they know the homeless—nine times out of 10—want to go through it for clothes or something they think is of value,” Milton said.
Milton’s team will often approach encampments or RVs near dumping piles, asking people inside before they start clearing the area of debris. But they say a federal court injunction barring them from clearing encampments has complicated their efforts, possibly worsening the Bayview’s dumping problem.
“We’re not able to move tents and encampments now as we were able to before, and the garbage is piling up around them more,” Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon said.
Starks has lived in the Bayview since 1969, and he remembers a time when his neighbors cared about their sidewalks and kept their blocks clean.
“It makes me feel pretty depressed, honestly,” Starks said. “I’m trying to move now. I’m just tired of this, tired of cleaning up over here. It’s getting worse; it’s not getting better.”
Part of the issue, Bayview residents say, is the rise of renters and people living in the neighborhood with few community ties. The Bayview has, in recent years, faced the pressures of gentrification.
“At one point, a lot of homes were owned in the Bayview, so people took pride in their homes: They came out; they might even sweep the whole block because all of the neighbors are friends and homeowners,” Milton said. “People don’t take pride any more.”
Lifetime Bayview resident Rob Ellison told The Standard in May that the issue boiled down to “disrespect for the community”—a historically Black and working-class neighborhood that people are treating as the city’s trash receptacle.
“They know they’re not going to be seen late at night, so they’ll bring their car and dump, dump, dump the truck,” Ellison said. “When we were little, nobody dumped their trash here.”
Liz Lindqwister can be reached at email@example.com