Donald Trump has targeted San Francisco and its homeless crisis once again, saying his administration will issue the city an environmental violation notice for allowing needles and waste to flow from the sewer system into the ocean.
The president’s comments were met with swift backlash from city officials, who say they are simply false. They also push a harmful but time-worn narrative that homeless people are bad for the environment, according to housing advocates.
“This is the president of the United States that is putting out this nonsense and social stigma,” said Kelley Cutler, the human rights organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness. “He has a massive audience and he is putting out this narrative that is very concerning. This can’t be something we just dismiss.”
Trump told a pool reporter aboard Air Force One late Wednesday night that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would issue the city a notice within a week because of the tremendous pollution – in particular used hypodermic needles – flowing into the ocean through the city’s storm drains.
“It’s a terrible situation – that’s in Los Angeles and in San Francisco,” Trump said. “And we’re going to be giving San Francisco, they’re in total violation, we’re going to be giving them a notice very soon.”
San Francisco officials say that needles are not, in fact, flowing into the ocean en mass. According to the city’s Public Utilities Commission, catch basins trap any debris coming out of storm drains, while two city treatment facilities process any runoff or pollutants that hadn’t been filtered out.
“To be clear, San Francisco has a combined sewer system, one of the best and most effective in the country, that ensures that all debris that flow into storm drains are filtered out at the city’s wastewater treatment plants,” said San Francisco mayor London Breed in a statement. “No debris flow out into the bay or the ocean.”
The idea that homeless people are somehow more harmful to the environment than housed people is a widely used trope, activists say, and it’s often a cover-up for nimbyism.
Throughout the state, neighborhood groups often call upon the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as a ploy to delay construction of homeless shelters. The law requires developers to explore any environmental effects a project might have, and more often than not, opponents to such projects will often list “homeless persons” as a potential environmental effect.
The wealthy San Francisco residents who launched a crowdfunding campaign to block construction of a homeless shelter in their waterfront neighborhood also cited “open drug and alcohol use, crime, daily emergency calls, public urination and defecation” as possible environmental hazards.
The use of CEQA to block homeless projects became so commonplace in Los Angeles that Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law this week legislation that would exempt homeless shelter projects from CEQA reviews until 2025.
San Francisco activist Paul Boden, who heads the Western Regional Advocacy Project, recalled hearing this narrative from environmental groups that wanted to clear out Albany Bulb, a tract of land along the San Francisco Bay that had become home to dozens of squatters over the years.
“The first thing from the environmental groups is ‘Oh we need get rid of these people so we can have a park’,” Boden said. “But you very rarely hear the term ‘human being’ in these discussion. You hear about hypodermic needles, you hear about piss, you hear about shit, you hear about trash. Very rarely do they get referred to as human beings.”
The issue isn’t that caring for the environment isn’t important, it’s that this narrative is yet another dog-whistle demonization of homeless people, Boden said.
“I found it ironic when we closed the national parks during the budget impasse this year, there were all these stories about how the national parks were overflowing with feces and garbage because there were no bathrooms or trash receptacles,” he said “Then when they opened them up again, the parks were clean. But with the homelessness, there are syringes and feces and everything that can pop into a politician’s head, but we do everything but open up bathrooms and trash receptacles.”
He continued: “With every segment of the human race, you’re going to go to the bathroom and you’re going to accumulate trash. Give people a place to go to the bathroom and a place to put their trash. It’s the same common sense logic as restore the HUD [US Department of Housing and Urban Development] funding that was cut during the Reagan administration and homelessness will go away.”
Trump’s comments came a day before the EPA formally moved to revoke California’s authority to set its own vehicle emissions standards.
“The hypocrisy of this administration to be saying that they’re concerned about the environment,” Boden said. “There isn’t anything that’s been happening in the EPA under this administration’s tenure that would show any concern for the environment.”