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Solving the wrong problem? San Francisco debuts ultra-pricey trash cans to deter homeless & vandals

Some might address the problem of homelessness by building shelters or launching job programs, but San Francisco’s current approach is out of sight, out of mind. The city is commissioning high tech new trash cans that vagrants can’t paw through, hoping that they’ll take their unsightly needs somewhere else.

© San Francisco Public Works

However, prototyping the flashy new cans will cost up to $20,000 each – a shocking outlay for a mere cosmetic procedure – and the city hopes to have 3,000 of them rolled out by the end of next year. Local media reports there are plans to launch a $537,000 pilot program to manufacture 15 of the specialized bins before the end of the year.

The hyper-competitive real estate market of San Francisco won’t settle for the vagrant-proof trash cans already on the market, apparently, meaning the city has to design its own and test those alongside existing models first. Acting director of Public Works Alaric Degrafinried explained that the homeless “pick the lock, they dump the whole can on the street and then sort through the things they want while the garbage is either on the sidewalk or out on the street.

The solution in tech-obsessed San Francisco is to “develop the next generation of trash can” – to ‘disrupt’ trash pickup, in the parlance of Silicon Valley – and incorporate recycling, a remote notification when the can is full, and vandalism-proofing. The city will work on three prototypes, ordering five of each at an eye-popping $20,000 each, and test those alongside existing techno-trash-cans. They hurried to reassure residents that the cans won’t actually cost $20,000 each – instead, the replacement cans will “only” cost about $3,000 or $4,000 per can.

San Francisco is notorious for its large and aggressive homeless population, nurtured by a combination of mild weather, a lenient legal climate, and an insanely high cost of living. Recent legal developments have only encouraged the population to metastasize, with District Attorney Chesa Boudin declining to prosecute shoplifting and other low-level offenses so that pharmacies and convenience stores are preyed on again and again with police unwilling to answer a call for any theft less than $950 – the cutoff for a felony crime. Any sum less than that is merely considered a misdemeanor, requiring the employee to personally get involved in a way they are seldom willing to do out of fear of violence.

Like its neighbor to the north, Portland, San Francisco is infamous for open-air drug use, quick-turnaround peddling of stolen goods, urinating and defecating on the streets, and other shocking behaviors. Boudin is currently facing a recall effort due to his perceived softness on crime, and a bill being considered in the state legislature would fund the Organized Retail Crime Task Force through the next four years out of concern that the so-called petty shoplifting is actually part of a much larger conspiracy.

However, San Francisco has been a haven for the homeless for decades, and rolling out high-end trash cans is unlikely to drive them away. Despite skyrocketing housing prices and a bumper crop of millionaires, the city also hosts some 18,000 homeless people, whether living on the street, crashing on others’ couches, or calling the area’s growing tent cities home.

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