A homeless man pushes a cart with his belongings in San Francisco, May 17. PHOTO:JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES
They say there’s a smartphone app for everything, and doubters should know there are now at least two dealing with excrement on the sidewalks of San Francisco. The city has its official SF311 app, part of its “San Francisco at your Service” program, and last year a private developer introduced Snapcrap, which allows residents to upload a photo of an offending specimen directly to the SF311 website. This alerts the city’s new five-person “poop patrol,” which will follow up, presumably, with a smile.
Then there are the maps. At least three maps charting the location of “poop complaints” in the city have been assembled, the latest and best by the nonprofit Open the Books. Their map shows most of the city covered by brown pin dots, each marking a report to the Department of Public Works.
The website RealtyHop.com dubs San Francisco “the doo-doo capital of the U.S.” They noted that the city’s poop reports almost tripled between 2011 and 2017.
The problem draws attention because the poop increasingly comes not from dogs but from humans. In partial defense of his city, Curbed SF’s Adam Brinklow explains that the reports submitted to the city didn’t distinguish between human and dog excrement, and that there were 150,000 dogs and fewer than 10,000 homeless people within city limits. But he admits that homelessness was probably the leading edge of the problem in San Francisco as well as Los Angeles, where 36,000 people live on the streets, and many do their business there.
The majority of the nation’s homeless people now live in California. There are myriad causes at work, no doubt. But there was no “defecation crisis”—a term usually associated with rural India—in the 1930s, even with unemployment at 25%, vagabonds roaming the country, and shantytowns and “Hoovervilles” springing up everywhere. Today’s homeless and the hobos of the Great Depression are different in many ways. The triple scourges of drug abuse, mental illness and family breakdown have produced anomie and derangements far deeper than those seen in the 1930s, when the widely shared nature of the economic and psychological distress provided its own grim comfort.
In California at least, one is struck by the contrast between the fastidious attention paid to the social duty of scooping up and disposing of dog feces, and the rather more paralyzed and guilty reaction to the plague of human feces. The former is treated as a moral imperative among the enlightened—and the thin plastic bags used as the means to this moral end have so far escaped the fate of plastic straws, well on their way to being outlawed as an environmental outrage. Even social-justice warriors don’t consider it their personal duty, however, to tidy up after their fellow human beings on the streets.
Confronted on the sidewalk with a nasty fait accompli, most people are indignant. But the questions they then ask often diverge. Those of a more traditional disposition might wonder, “What is wrong with these people?” Those of a more progressive mind-set might exclaim, “Why hasn’t the government designed a program to solve this?”
Each is sincere, and society will have to try to answer both to make things better. But it’s the former inquiry, prepared to make some difficult and unfashionable moral distinctions, that needs encouragement in deep-blue California. “Homeless” was originally an adjective. It became a collective noun, denoting the victims of homelessness, only later, under the influence of the 20th century’s confidence that the first step in solving a social problem is to name it. Not all problems are social, however, and few if any social problems can be “solved,” in the strong sense of the term.
Without wishing to return to the Elizabethan Poor Laws, we ought to consider what was lost when the courts discouraged Americans from thinking of “homelessness” in light of the old laws against vagrancy. Under that understanding, no one had a right to camp out indefinitely on public property, much less to defecate on it. Public property belonged to the public—to everyone—and couldn’t be privatized for the benefit of one or more vagrants, however poor or sick. Though that principle would need to be applied to modern circumstances, it is the indispensable starting point for thinking about the shocking problems of the Golden State.
Mr. Kesler is editor of the Claremont Review of Books, from whose summer issue this is adapted.