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When Noise Machines Don't Work 

Wednesday, Nov 18 2015
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In the Tenderloin, life is loud, especially when lived at street level. Vehicle and foot traffic is constant, even at odd hours, as is commotion from people caught in the city's never-ending dance with homelessness and addiction.

To combat the constant presence of "campers and loiterers" outside its preschool on Golden Gate Avenue, nonprofit services provider Wu Yee Children's Services tried a novel intervention: noise. Thanks to a $3,000 grant from District Attorney George Gascón, Wu Yee installed an "anti-loitering system" — known as a "Mosquito" — outside the school.

Designed in the UK to combat "anti-social behavior" in teenagers lingering outside agitated merchants' shops, the Mosquito emits a high-pitched buzzing or ringing sound audible to anyone within a 30-foot radius. (The sound has been compared to bats' screeching and the constant ring heard by tinnitus sufferers). Kinder and gentler than the car-alarm-on-steroids "long-range acoustic device" (or LRAD) employed by various police departments (which can permanently damage hearing), the Mosquito is designed to annoy, much like its real-life namesake.

Before installing the small $1,200 box outside the preschool last year, Mike Neumann, Wu Yee's chief operating officer, tested the device in his office. (Colleagues found it "very annoying," Neumann told SF Weekly.) But a funny thing happened after Neumann set the device to ring starting in the evening, when several regular campers would pitch a tent outside Wu Yee for the night: Nothing.

The campers, Neumann said, stayed the whole night as if they couldn't hear the ring — or if they could, a high-frequency squeal didn't rate as discomfiting as the Tenderloin's usual soundtrack.

Despite its failure in San Francisco, the device apparently works well enough to have been sold to 3,500 local governments in the UK as of 2010, the BBC reported that year. (In North America, where few cities have resorted to the Mosquito, the devices are sold by a Vancouver, Canada-based company whose president is also a local real estate agent in that city).

And unlike in the UK, where youth and autism advocates have agitated against the Mosquito as violating human rights, the machine's presence in San Francisco (Wu Yee hasn't taken it down) has gone almost entirely unnoticed.

Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the city's Coalition on Homelessness, wasn't aware the device existed in the neighborhood — but had strong feelings just the same.

"It's disgusting," she said. "People need somewhere to sleep. We're in a big huge housing crisis and people have nowhere to go. ... It's not acceptable to treat people in such an undignified way. It's like they're treated as pests."

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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