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Is San Francisco Drowning in Dirty Needles or Not?

Local papers can't decide.


More streets are free of needles than were last year, crowed the Examiner yesterday. Which was funny, because the Chronicle simultaneously ran a story about a big upsurge in complaints over discarded needles on sidewalks and streets. Somehow, the percentage of residential routes free of needles (as well as feces and condoms) grew to 69 percent, up from 58 percent last year. And yet: 311 complaints about needles in streets and parks have jumped by a factor of five since 2012, from 440 in 2012 to 2,565 so far this year. Are we complaining more about the same amount of litter, or just growing more sensitive to a dwindling quantity of unsavory sights? Could we be, as SFist wondered, clutching our pearls a bit too tightly?  

Before we go full wonk and don our poo-emoji caps (a thing, right?), we should note that the aforementioned fivefold increase in 311 calls includes reports from parks and streets, whereas the Examiner’s source, the Office of the Controller, breaks down its needle data into separate parks and streets categories. That could account for some of the discrepancy.

Finding out how many needles are actually on the streets is tricky, as the Chron notes; the health department lacks a good way to count dirty syringes. “The data is not being captured in terms of the number of needles,” says Department of Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon. (If there is a real uptick in needle litter, the Chron explains, it could be because the health department’s needle program no longer requires users to turn in old needles in order to get clean ones—easy-to-procure sterile needles being the public health goal.)

Because of the way street cleanliness is studied and 311 calls tallied, it’s possible for San Francisco’s streets to be simultaneously cleaner than they were last year and more of a disaster. The finding about fewer needles on the streets comes from the controller’s Street and Sidewalk Maintenance Standards report, which covers fiscal year 2014–15. Unlike residents and DPW crews, who are out day after day, the controller’s assessors conduct about 30 inspections a month, covering a total of 184 routes two times each year. Even one condom, needle, or piece of excrement disqualifies a route from being counted as clear. “It’s great news when they say there are fewer needles,” Gordon says, “but that’s based on two moments in time a year when they evaluate the route.” Anecdotally, she adds, “our crews in these areas believe the are more needles in the street.” 

For more than a year, DPW has sent teams out to known litter areas in the Tenderloin, Civic Center, and parts of the Mission. It could be that the crews’ anecdotal findings are centered on stretches of sidewalk that were never clear to begin with, and so wouldn’t detract from the city's overall percentage of clear streets. 

There could also be some redundancy in the 311 data, explains Luke Fuller, a performance analyst with the controller’s office.  “Our evaluators take a while to go through each route, and thought they’re going to see a lot of things, they’re only going to count each once,” Fuller says. “The 311 data has duplicates in it”—say, if more than one person calls in the same sighting—“but it’s not clear from the data how many duplicates that would be.” So it could be that we’re not so much clutching our pearls as mildly swatting at them over and over.

City controller Benjamin Rosenfield gives DPW props for responding to more than 90 percent of street cleaning requests within 48 hours, depsite a 37 percent increase in the number of requests since the prior fiscal year. "To their credit, the department has been meeting or exceeding performance requirements despite rising call volume," he says.

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