SAN FRANCISCO – State lawmakers in California are evaluating a measure to create a statewide office dealing specifically with issues pertaining to the homeless as San Francisco city council members catch flak for cleaning up some areas frequented by the homeless.
'Operation Scrub Down' is San Francisco's industrial strength approach to cleaning up one of the nation's dirtiest towns. Teams of city workers, some in biohazard suits, have been spraying and sweeping city streets, and seizing abandoned shopping carts.
Supporters say it is a matter of sanitation and public hygiene, but critics say it's a violation of civil rights.
"All too often, it just turns into cleaning homeless people off the streets, telling them to move on, taking their property, issuing them tickets, and all those kind of things that go along with that sort of basic civil rights violations," said John Viola, an advocate for the San Francisco Homeless Coalition.
But Mohammad Nuru, director of Operation Scrub Down and a former homeless advocate, disagreed.
"The time has come for some tough love. You know, we can't allow people to remain on our streets, we can't allow people to use drugs on our streets," he said.
Nuru said people are fed up with the sights and smells of some streets in San Francisco and the filth that lurks in lingering shopping carts.
"They're left on street corners or they're left on sidewalks," he said. "And then with the homeless coalition, it's like a game... They come in and try to file lawsuits and try to get everybody all riled up and rip the city off of money."
Every day between 200 and 500 carts wind up in a city storage yard where the items are tagged and by law are left for 90 days so people can come down and get their possessions back.
Homeless advocates call it outright confiscation.
"For homeless people, they live in conditions of vulnerability. They need everything that they have on the streets to survive. It's their basics of life, it's their medicine, it's their bedding, it's their blankets," Viola said.
And after a quick look at some of the carts, observers can see it's also crack pipes, needles and jars of urine that are left behind. Whether it's because the property is unwanted, hard to identify or difficult to reach because of the long walk from downtown, hardly any homeless people ever come to reclaim their property.
Nonetheless, critics plan to fight this sanitation effort in court, even as others call the operation a good first step on the city's road to recovery.