Newsom Litter Plan: Foolish, Costly and Illegal

by Randy Shaw on February 11, 2005


Mayor Newsom announced at a Thursday press conference that nonprofit organizations with city contracts will soon be responsible for picking up litter on their block. This plan would divert nonprofit staff from providing medical assistance, mental health counseling, or housing placement for homeless people to instead performing work designed for fulltime city workers. Nonprofits will face hikes in insurance premiums due to employees’ increased risks, while imposing an undue burden on groups based in the Tenderloin and other low-income areas where trash is a 24-hour problem. Finally, the Mayor’s plan subjects nonprofit employers to employee lawsuits for unilaterally changing job descriptions of staff to include litter pick-up. The Board of Supervisors must demand public hearings on Newsom’s crazy idea before its implementation. ##M:[more] ##

I support efforts to reduce litter in San Francisco, and have publicly praised the Newsom Administration for getting Tenderloin sidewalks consistently cleaner than ever before. But the Mayor’s plan to put the burden on nonprofit staff to clean up the block around their office is the wrong approach.

Let’s begin with the obvious—the lack of available staff to do the work. At the Tenderloin Housing Clinic where I am Director, complying with the Mayor’s edict—which will be a condition imposed in all city contracts—would mean that one of our housing counselors hired to process applicants through the Care not Cash program would instead be spending most of her day outside picking up trash. Since the housing counselor position involves a much different set of skills than trash pick-up, after our current staff quit we would have find it difficult to fill a critical position in the city’s homeless program.

There are so many other examples, ranging from medical staff at Tom Waddell to senior social workers across the city. The simple fact is that nonprofit staff are typically hired on the basis to perform social, medical, administrative or financial services and are not interested, or qualified to serve, as street sweepers.

In addition, Newsom’s plan will cost, rather than save, the city money. The diversion of city staff to street cleaning comes at a steep price in the form of reduced services to clients and higher insurance costs due to potential exposure to dirty needles on city streets. This cost will exceed that of hiring additional public works employees or contracting with a nonprofit to perform street cleaning services.

Since city staff blocked homeless people from sleeping in front of the parking lot at Golden Gate and Larkin Streets, individuals now sleep in other parts of the Tenderloin. This includes in front of our office at 126 Hyde Street, where we are greeted every morning with trash where this was a rare occurrence from 1986-2003.

We did not create the trash problem in front of our office, the city did. It was the city that moved people out of sites under freeways and next to parking lots, and into the Tenderloin community.

My organization pays a fee to a Tenderloin program that cleans sidewalks. We do what we can to keep the space in front of our building clean. But we cannot keep up with the trash caused by the city’s strategy of confining homeless people to certain neighborhoods, which does not include Pacific Heights or the Marina.

The Mayor must have a low opinion of employee rights if he thinks that a nonprofit employer can simply tell a bookkeeper or case manager that their job now entails walking around the Tenderloin picking up trash. Nonprofits will get sued over this, and will not be able to use city funds to defend the case.

It is illegal for the city to impose a contract term that subjects the nonprofit to legal liability. If the Mayor’s proposal moves forward, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic will not be the only nonprofit group suing to stop its implementation.

The Board of Supervisors must hold a hearing on the Mayor’s plan before it is inserted in all city contracts. The Mayor’s motive of clean streets is sound, but he should be turning to assistance from the big corporations downtown who no longer pay the city business tax, not to the city’s many underfunded, short-staffed nonprofits.