It didn’t take Sean Miller long after moving from Vermont to San Francisco to understand the scope of a stinky problem plaguing the city by the sea: poop on public sidewalks.
Dodging human — and sometimes animal — excrement on walkways became a normal part of the 24-year-old’s life in his South of Market neighborhood.
“Pretty much everyone who lives here is pretty well accustomed to seeing this stuff when you’re walking down the street in every neighborhood,” Miller said. “It’s very frustrating. You should be able to pull out your phone, take a photo and send it to the city to have it cleaned up.”
The idea for Snapcrap was born from this notion.
The free app, which launched last week for iOS users, allows people to take photographs of feces on sidewalks and streets and deliver an alert to the city’s Public Works Department. The app uses cellphone GPS to track the specific location of the mess and creates a ticket so that users can keep tabs on their complaints.
Prepared messages that can be sent to the city along with the photo range from succinct to humorous.
“Help! I can’t hold my breathe much longer,” one note reads.
Similar in name to Snapchat, which allows users to take photos and videos and share them with specific friends, Snapcrap’s display plays off the visuals of the popular social media application. The icon has a yellow background with a white poop emoji.
Snapcrap had been downloaded nearly 1,000 times in less than a week following its launch, Miller said.
San Francisco leaders have been grappling for years with its dirty streets. The city receives roughly 1,300 requests each month for human and animal waste cleanup, said Rachel Gordon, a spokeswoman for the Public Works Department.
This comes at a time when San Francisco, like other major metropolitan cities in California — including Los Angeles — are struggling with staggering numbers of homeless individuals in their communities.
San Francisco’s point-in-time count identified 7,499 homeless individuals in 2017, a number that has remained fairly steady the past five years. The SoMa neighborhood where Miller lives has 3,680 homeless people, the largest such population of any neighborhood in the city, according to the report.
San Francisco packs more than 870,000 residents into less than 50 square miles. Those close living conditions, paired with development in some areas of the city, have placed many of the effects of homelessness — including public defecation — directly on residents’ doorsteps.
Gordon said human waste often is found between parked cars, doorways or other places that provide some sense of privacy for individuals.
“There’s fewer places where people can do it out of the way,” Gordon said. “Problems now are being pushed into public spaces where there are a lot of people.”
City officials have taken steps in recent years to combat the persistent problem of human waste on streets, including placing public toilets in 12 neighborhoods and, most recently, forming a team of five public works staffers — dubbed the poop patrol — who soon will begin combing neighborhoods and steam-cleaning areas where waste is found.
“The end goal is always to have appropriate places for people to relieve themselves,” Gordon said. “We don’t want people or dogs to poop on the sidewalks. It’s a potential health hazard. It’s a public nuisance, and it’s an issue of dignity for people.”
San Francisco also has a city-run app, called SF311, that people can use to submit requests for issues like graffiti, streetlight repair or sidewalk cleaning. Miller’s critique of the system is that it requires a significant amount of information — and time — for people on the go to report an issue like human waste or a needle on the sidewalk.
“I just like the idea of a simplified service,” he said. “I think a lot of people thought I was trying to undermine or put down the 311 app, but I just wanted to see if we could make it easier.”
Miller said he’s already working with city officials to improve how his app communicates with the municipal reporting system. He’s also trying to remove the requirement that users log in to the app through their Facebook accounts, which some people have criticized, so that it appeals to a wider audience.
“After working at a startup in San Francisco for a year and a half, I've gotten pretty good at recognizing the ‘drop everything you are doing and fix this now’ problems,” he said. “This is one of those problems. The fact that San Francisco is one the most popular cities in the world and we have people living in fear who are scared to walk to work or take a bus is simultaneously heartbreaking and infuriating.”
The sanitation problem isn’t exclusive to San Francisco.
Los Angeles in recent years has grappled with cleaning up homeless encampments, a move that officials say is necessary to protect against diseases like hepatitis A, which can be spread through contact with fecal matter.
Crews in San Diego last year began power-washing sidewalks in the downtown area with a chlorine solution after a hepatitis A outbreak.