For the past three months, Mission District Supervisor Hillary Ronen has woken up early, rolled up the sleeves of her hoodie, and dived into cleaning up the urine, feces, trash, dead animals, and needles scattered around the 16th Street BART Station.
“It was one of the most obscene and really unhealthy situations that I had ever seen,” Ronen said at a hearing on the station’s cleanliness Wednesday. “I’ve been riding that BART station for 15 years, but when you’re a passenger you just walk through, and try to see as little as possible.”
Ronen’s effort began with a phone call from BART Board Director Bevan Dufty, who himself had taken on the sisyphean effort of manually cleaning the station as a statement to the transportation agency that more work was needed in this area. Ronen joined in on a particularly nasty morning, right after Halloween.
Together, they learned about cleaning up stations the hard way. Feces are best cleaned up if you throw sand on them first, to absorb up any liquid. And urine soaks in deep: After they asked for the overnight cleaning crew to power wash the plazas for four hours, instead of one, it smelled worse than ever the following morning. Turns out, the power washing just unearthed even more urine, bringing it to the cement surface.
“We have made it a crusade to change conditions at the station,” Ronen said, and this week she and Dufty declared victory — or at least, the beginning of it. BART has agreed to up both its staff and service-wide cleaning standards.
BART Assistant General Manager Paul Oversier thanked the duo for their “sweat equity” on the issue.
“When the dot com bust hit us so hard in the early 2000s, we had to make some tough decisions about where to cut services,” Oversier said Wednesday. “Unfortunately we had to reduce our cleaning services pretty significantly.”
But we’re a decade past that bust, and while BART is finally back up to pre-recession standards, it’s taken much too long. Nevertheless, it’s upped cleaning shifts at the 16th Street station from six per week to 14. Nearly half of those will include two janitors, not just one.
In addition, the two plazas will receive four hours of power washing per night, instead of one. As mentioned above, this may mean the urine smell will increase for a little bit, while it’s uprooted and swept away.
Finally, just in time for summer, BART will “seal” the plaza for easier future maintenance.
“In April we’re coming in and doing a deep cleaning, and then going through and sealing the area, so when we do steam cleaning after it’ll be much more effective in terms of dealing with the smells,” Oversier said.
In the meantime, Ronen and Dufty will continue to clean the station themselves on Wednesday mornings, until the situation is fully resolved. And for both of them, that means more than just cleanliness. The urine, dirt, and needles are, after all, the symptom of another problem, not the cause. There are a number of single-room occupancy hotels in the neighborhood with no communal living spaces, and because of that, many use the plazas as a place to congregate.
It’s also a safe place for people experiencing homelessness to hang out: The 2010 sit/lie ordinance, which criminalizes people sitting or lying on sidewalks, does not apply to BART stations. Dufty believes this has driven more people to the area.
“Many people opted to go downstairs into the station, where it was out of the rain, out of the cold, and safe,” he said.
With this in mind, Ronen and Dufty have asked the city’s Homeless Outreach Team to supply staff members who are dedicated to working with people living and sleeping at 16th Street BART.
Jeff Kositsky with the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing was called to speak at Wednesday’s hearing on the BART station.
“We don’t have really great data on what we’re doing at 16th Street BART,” he admitted. But he says that the department does deploy staff in the area. “The HOT team spends not most of its time, but a significant amount of its time at the 16th Street plaza.”
That said, Kositsky says the “eyeball test” shows that they have significantly more work to do.
As is always the case in San Francisco, the problem is multi-dimensional. But this is a start — and next time you’re riding the escalator up to 16th and Mission from BART, take a risk and inhale a deep breath. For the first time in years, the acrid stench of urine might not punch you in the face as soon as you reach the surface.