SAN FRANCISCO — The heroin needles, the pile of excrement between parked cars, the yellow soup oozing out of a large plastic bag by the curb and the stained, faux Persian carpet dumped on the corner.
It is a scene of detritus that might bring to mind any variety of developing-world squalor. But this is San Francisco, the capital of the nation’s technology industry, where a single span of Hyde Street hosts an open-air narcotics market by day and at night is occupied by the unsheltered and drug-addled slumped on the sidewalk.
There are many other streets like it, but by one measure it is the dirtiest block in the city.
Just a 15-minute walk away are the offices of Twitter and Uber, two companies that along with other nameplate technology giants have helped push the median price of a home in San Francisco well beyond $1 million.
This dichotomy of street crime and world-changing technology, of luxury condominiums and grinding, persistent homelessness, and the dehumanizing effects for those forced to live on the streets provoke outrage among the city’s residents. For many who live here it is difficult to reconcile San Francisco’s liberal politics with the misery that surrounds them.
According to city statisticians, the 300 block of Hyde Street, a span about the length of a football field in the heart of the Tenderloin neighborhood, received 2,227 complaints about street and sidewalk cleanliness over the past decade, more than any other. It is an imperfect measurement — some blocks might be dirtier but have fewer calls — but residents on the 300 block say that they are not surprised by their ranking.
The San Francisco bureau photographer, Jim Wilson, and I set out to measure the depth of deprivation on a single block. We returned a number of times, including a 12-hour visit, from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. on a recent weekday. Walking around the neighborhood we saw the desperation of the mentally ill, the drug dependent and homeless, and heard from embittered residents who say it will take much more than a broom to clean up the city, long considered one of the United States’ beacons of urban beauty.
Human waste has become such a widespread problem in San Francisco that the city in September established a unit dedicated to removing it from the sidewalks. Rachel Gordon, a spokeswoman for the Public Works Department, describes the new initiative as a “proactive human waste” unit.
At 8 a.m. on a recent day, as mothers shepherded their children to school, we ran into Yolanda Warren, a receptionist who works around the corner from Hyde Street. The sidewalk in front of her office was stained with feces. The street smelled like a latrine.
“Some parts of the Tenderloin, you’re walking, and you smell it and you have to hold your breath,” Warren said.
As she does every morning, she hosed down the urine outside her office. The city has installed five portable bathrooms for the hundreds of unsheltered people in the Tenderloin but that has not stopped people from urinating and defecating in the streets.
“There are way too many people out here that don’t have homes,” Warren said.
Over the past five years the number of unsheltered homeless people in San Francisco has remained relatively steady — around 4,400 — and the sidewalks of the Tenderloin have come to resemble a refugee camp.