Taxpayers in San Diego spend nearly $1 million each year sanitizing sidewalks from biohazards, including needles, personal hygiene waste and human feces. It’s a problem that is not only gross, it's also a major public-health threat some say the city isn’t doing enough to fix.
“Maybe this is really gross,” said Sherman Heights resident Essence McConnell, “but I feel, since doing the cleanups, I know the difference between the smell of human feces and animal feces. I know that’s really disgusting.”
Photos: Trash, Needles, Human Waste Litter San Diego Sidewalks
Every week, McConnell organizes a cleanup conducted by families, friends and strangers. They usually meet up around Sherman Heights Elementary School and spend an hour cleaning up the sidewalks. McConnell said her boyfriend and she initially organized cleanups on Fiesta Island but soon realized there was just as much trash, if not more, in their own neighborhood.
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“Kinda flabbergasted by all the trash that was right in front of the school and there are kids literally walking to school,” McConnell said.
And it’s not just trash they find on the sidewalk.
NBC 7 Investigates dug through thousands of 311 app complaints and found hundreds of reports of human waste.
In all, we found a complaint for “human excrement” nearly 430 times just in the first eight months of 2021. Our team walked dozens of blocks to survey the extent of this issue, through neighborhoods like \downtown, Hillcrest, North Park, Ocean Beach, Mission Beach and Pacific Beach. We found a lot of human waste — feces; urine in bottles; used needles feminine products and contraceptives; as well as other trash.
An additional issue we encountered was encampments set up on sidewalks. Some streets have so many tents blocking the sidewalk, pedestrians have no choice but to walk into traffic to reach their destination. On one side of 1500 National Avenue, we counted more than 26 tents. It’s a reality public health experts say leads to dangerous conditions for everyone.
San Diego State University assistant professor Jennifer Felner studied the recent Hepatitis A outbreak in San Diego. From 2016-18, it killed 20 people and sickened nearly 600 others. Felner and her colleagues found one of the main ways the outbreak spread was through interactions with human fecal matter. The interaction can occur easily, like when a dog steps on human waste during a walk outdoors, then brings the virus into a home where a child might be sitting or playing on the floor.
Felner said the study concluded that the city of San Diego lacks well-maintained, 24-hour public restrooms. Felner said many people can't use or don’t want to use the public restrooms that do exist because they’re dirty, not stocked with toilet paper or are, often, locked.
“This is really preventable,” Felner said. “This is something we could easily — not cheap — but we could easily address by increasing access to bathrooms.”
One of the solutions to the ongoing outbreaks was port-a-potties and portable wash stations. But every advocate and expert NBC 7 Investigates spoke with during the course of our reporting this story — Felner, homeless advocates and homeless people — said these are not adequate long-term solutions.
The public-health biohazard problem is costing taxpayers a lot. In fiscal year 2020, the city spent $996,388 sanitizing sidewalks from biohazards alone. For fiscal year 2021, the city spent more than $902,000.
When the city does do street cleanups, they often force encampments to relocate while crews clean up trash. But these sweeps often lead to clashes with the homeless community, and some don’t move willingly. Those who do move told us they planned to just cross the street and return the next day.
Omarion Johnson, who started living on the sidewalk a few months ago, said he hides behind shrubs when bathing or relieving himself, something he describes as demoralizing.
“We need more public restrooms out here and showers,” Johnson said. “Yes, I do care. Yes, it is a problem.”
Many agree that feces complaints are only a side-effect of the true crisis: homelessness.
Homeless advocate Michael McConnell (no relation to Sherman Heights resident Essence McConnell) is in favor of more clean public restrooms open for longer hours, but he said that alone isn’t enough.
“You can run around and clean up all day long," McConnell said. "It’s just going to reappear in a few hours or in a day. That’s an endless cycle. That’s a Band-Aid that’s constantly being ripped off. We need leaders who are going to invest in real solutions and real help so that the problem doesn’t occur in the first place and that people aren’t dying out here on the streets, let alone having to use the restroom.”
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria campaigned on addressing homelessness, and one of his largest initiatives since taking office centers on public streets and sidewalks. NBC 7 tried for weeks to meet one-on-one with the mayor to discuss his efforts to clean up some of the waste, but he declined. So NBC 7 Investigates caught up with him after a press conference for a new park to ask him how he plans to keep sidewalks safe.
“We have to house more people,” Gloria said. “Folks are doing that not necessarily by choice, they don’t have another option. They are not suitably housed.”
In addition to an investment in homeless services, Gloria said his administration has made modest progress in building new public restrooms, citing restrooms set to open in Horton Plaza.
While Michael McConnell said he actually likes a lot of the mayor’s initiatives, he feels they fall short in scale.
“All I ever hear about on these soundbites from our city and county leadership is these small pilot programs," McConnell said. "That’s not going to get us anywhere. They’re working at a snail’s pace when we have a raging crisis, a humanitarian and public health crisis on our streets, and they’re moving like turtles.”
Gloria concedes that his administration has not moved as fast as he would like.
“I think we have made some progress," Gloria said. "We have not made nearly enough. I am not satisfied. I am as impatient as anybody. The last thing I will say about this is we did not get into this overnight, we won’t get out of it overnight. but what people in San Diego have is my ironclad commitment to have this as my top priority.”
Back in Sherman Heights, Essence McConnell is already making this a top priority. And for anyone who thinks the issue of human waste isn’t a big deal, McConnell urges them to take a step back.
“If you feel more comfortable driving in your neighborhood rather than walking because of things like that, then I think trash is a big deal,” McConnell said.