The whoosh of flushing toilets is a constant interruption in the hush of Sacramento’s Central Library, where the bathrooms are the most reliably available public facilities for homeless people in downtown Sacramento.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, the restrooms had dozens of users in the span of an hour, most toting bags or pulling handcarts and suitcases. Many came from nearby Cesar Chavez Plaza, where homeless gatherings remain common and controversial. As the weather heats up, the library has also become a primary source of drinking water for homeless people.
But when the library is closed, “you’re screwed,” said DeWayne O’Neal Warner, a formerly homeless man visiting the plaza last week. “Bathrooms are primitive out here.”
The sanitation situation in Sacramento’s urban core has become a flashpoint in the long-running clash between social advocates and business boosters. Restaurants and coffee shops have tightly managed their restrooms, and the city shut down public facilities in Cesar Chavez Plaza that once served as the main source of relief for homeless congregants.
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The latest homeless count has not been released, but business leaders and residents say there has been a noticeable increase of homeless clusters in the city core. Some believe that a temporary winter shelter opened near City Hall (and since closed) drew more homeless to the area. Others suggest that the historically wet winter that flooded the American River Parkway has forced homeless people into urban areas.
Advocates for the homeless believe the city should show more compassion by providing public bathrooms in some fashion until the city figures out how to permanently house those living on the streets. They say it would reduce the amount of human waste in alleys and near storefronts.
“I’ve heard it a million times from City Council that this is a public-health issue. What could be more out of line with public health than forcing people to use the streets and alleys as public urinals?” said Bob Erlenbusch, head of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.
The Downtown Sacramento Partnership, the business group for the 66 blocks that run from the waterfront to 16th Street and from H to N streets, is adamantly opposed to placing more public restrooms downtown. The group sees it as a stopgap measure without a long-term benefit for businesses or transients.
The partnership believes the city should focus on moving homeless people into permanent housing instead and pays for two “navigators” to work with the downtown homeless population to get them into city and county-funded programs. Dion Dwyer of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership said those navigators helped house 85 people last year.
“If we focus on the bathroom issue, then we are going to build bathrooms everywhere,” said Dwyer. “So it’s a matter of what’s your solution? For the partnership, it’s a solution over a service.”
In April, the partnership had 17 “code 2000” events – its bureaucratic way of saying maintenance workers were sent to clean excrement. That was a drop from 27 incidents in March and 30 in February, Dwyer said.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg agrees some with each side, a politically tangled position that seems to frustrate both factions. He remains focused on the long view instead of quick fixes.
As Steinberg tries to attract more businesses downtown, he said he agrees that the city core may not be the best place for homeless people. But he’s also stubbornly opposed to just pushing them elsewhere.
“We ought to be standing up for the small-business owner and the vitality of the downtown. I completely agree with that,” Steinberg said.
But, he added, “We have to ask and answer the second half of the question, which is: ‘If not here, where are people going to go?’ ”
He doesn’t want the homeless population moving “to the American River to downtown and back again,” he said. “Otherwise, we are just spinning.”
As for the library, there’s a “real cost” to making its bathrooms the de facto solution, said Rivkah Sass, Sacramento Public Library director.
Sass stresses the library is a “free and open space” and should be a public resource available to all regardless of their housing status. “For people experiencing homelessness, sometimes we are the last resort,” she said.
But Sass said one of the biggest challenges is that many of the homeless who come in have apparent mental problems and can be destructive. Sass said it’s not uncommon for the bathrooms to be damaged or misused – people have ripped paper dispensers off the wall and defecated in urinals.
Each of those “hygiene issues” costs the library “a few hundred dollars,” Sass said. “That’s an impact on our ability to staff and our ability to buy books. It’s an impact on the hours we are open.”
Sass said she spent $131,091 on security at the main library last fiscal year. She also spent $10,000 last fiscal year power washing the outside of the main building twice a week in summer because of excrement and urine, and $15,600 with a specialty cleaning company for indoor incidents.
The expenses come when the library budget is already stretched despite passage last year of a tax extension. The city opened three new libraries in recent years but didn’t increase the overall budget for the system’s 11 locations, instead cutting its budget during the recession.
Dwyer said his group spends about $250,000 a year steam cleaning sidewalks and alleys and employs a full-time staff of maintenance workers. Not all of that is because of feces and urine, he said. There are also overflowing dumpsters, vomit and garbage.
“It’s a bigger problem than just the availability of facilities,” said Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents the area. “What are the long-term efforts to get these mentally ill people off the street? … It’s hard to figure out what the right answer is.”
Steinberg agrees the problem is far bigger than bathrooms. The city just doesn’t have the money to pay for the solutions he wants.
But he’s shown he has a knack for finding resources. He is pushing to prioritize those on the streets when giving out federal housing vouchers. About 1,400 vouchers countywide could be available for homeless people over the next three years beginning in 2018 if the plan gets final approval in coming months.
Steinberg believes his best chance to move homeless people out of Cesar Chavez Plaza and into permanent housing is a pot of new money – up to $60 million in state funding that’s part of a pilot program to coordinate health and social services. It could pay for proposals like placing mental health workers on downtown ambulances and coordinating outreach with police officers. That type of intensive intervention “ultimately is the only way we are going to make this problem better,” he said.
A decision on the state money will come by the end of May.