Health & Medicine

‘Pit stop’ toilets for homeless cost $11 a flush. Is it worth it?

In June 2016, City officials launched the “Pit Stop” pilot program, placing a portable restroom near Friendship Park, a gathering place for the homeless north of downtown. The restroom is open 7 days a week, 10 hours a day, and is staffed during ozpen hours.
In June 2016, City officials launched the “Pit Stop” pilot program, placing a portable restroom near Friendship Park, a gathering place for the homeless north of downtown. The restroom is open 7 days a week, 10 hours a day, and is staffed during ozpen hours. lsterling@sacbee.com

About 90 people a day use a staffed, portable restroom set up in June near Sacramento’s largest homeless services center. The idea is to reduce outdoor human waste while giving homeless people a bit more dignity.

But the restroom has cost the city about $1,000 a day, nearly 75 percent higher than the initial estimated cost for the project, according to a city staff report.

“It was a worthy experiment, now we have to figure out a way to do it better … because it’s not a long-term solution,” Councilman Steven Hansen said. “By staffing it with attendants, that’s part of what has made it more successful, but that’s also where the vast majority of the cost comes.”

The usual public restrooms used by Sacramento’s homeless are often filthy, with toilets regularly backing up and flooding. They are hot spots for vandalism and crime, leading the city to shut down some for extended periods. Advocates say a lack of public restrooms often results in parts of downtown smelling of urine.

To remedy the problem, city officials launched the “Pit Stop” pilot program in June, placing a portable restroom near Friendship Park, a gathering place for the homeless north of downtown. The restroom is open seven days a week, 10 hours a day, and is staffed by two attendants during those hours.

The program is modeled after a similar effort in San Francisco. Its goal is to give the homeless a safe, clean place to use the bathroom, to keep human waste from accumulating outdoors and to prevent vandalism and misuse at other city public bathrooms that aren’t regularly staffed.

The Pit Stop trailer has three air-conditioned stalls, one that is ADA compliant, each with a sink. It also serves as a dog waste and needle collection site.

Sacramento City Council members planned to discuss the program at their Tuesday meeting.

The city staff report shows many homeless people and some community members are happy about the Pit Stop restroom. It was used almost 9,500 times from mid-June through September – an average of nine uses per hour.

The city of Sacramento will spend about $173,000 on it from June to December, excluding the $35,000 cost of the trailer, according to the city’s report. That’s about $11 per use over a six-month period, if usage remains constant through December.

The program was “certainly more expensive than we’d hoped,” said Emily Halcon, homeless services coordinator for the city of Sacramento. Her office did not have a recommendation on whether it should be continued.

San Francisco’s six-month Pit Stop pilot program, with three solar-powered portable toilets in the Tenderloin District, cost about $140,000 in 2014, though the toilets were not open as long each day as the Pit Stop in Sacramento. San Francisco spends about $200,000 to operate a Pit Stop site each year.

The budget for the six-month Sacramento program was initially $100,000.

One reason for the cost overrun: The city could not find a contractor that would maintain the restroom for less. Officials hope that a contractor will soon step in and maintain the portable restroom, bringing down costs.

Costs per restroom could also go down as the program becomes more established or if the program expands and administrative tasks were spread out.

Councilman Jeff Harris, who championed the Pit Stop pilot program, said that the $11 per use cost of the pilot program “doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story.” The program, he said, has “ancillary benefits that you can’t quantify” and he will ask fellow council members to continue it with modifications.

The city “has a great need to mitigate the impacts of homelessness and specifically fecal matter in the streets,” he said. “There is another thing you can’t put a dollar amount to, which is the dignity of not having to pull down your pants on the street.”

Harris said on-site staff not only maintain and protect the trailer, but also serve as outreach workers to homeless individuals to “start to bring them closer to accepting services.”

Joan Burke, a spokeswoman for Loaves & Fishes, a homeless services and advocacy group, said it is vital to give the homeless a clean, safe place to use the restroom. But she acknowledged that the cost associated with the Pit Stop program may prove too high. The money spent on Pit Stop would pay for thousands of nights in a local hotel, or go a long way toward providing permanent housing, she noted.

“When you are trying to help homeless people, you have an immediate need: Housing,” she said.

She suggested Sacramento look at the “Portland Loo” restrooms in Oregon’s largest city, which are simple, sturdy, unmanned flush toilet kiosks.

Phillip Reese: 916-321-1137, @PhillipHReese

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