In the daily grind of life for homeless people on the streets of Sacramento, the search for a place to use the bathroom is a constant concern.
Many private businesses tightly manage their restrooms and, according to a new report, public facilities are few and scattered, and many close at dusk.
The result, according to the report by the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, is that homeless men and women are forced to use streets, alleyways and parkways as their restrooms.
Bob Erlenbusch, the organization's director, said the issue is both a moral dilemma and a public health concern. Sanitation has emerged as one of the flashpoint issues in discussions about Sacramento’s growing homelessness crisis.
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“It is the height of hypocrisy for city officials to say on the one hand that homelessness is a public health issue but on the other close public bathrooms,” said Erlenbusch. “The lack of sanitation for homeless people is a huge environmental justice issue.”
According to the report released Monday, the city operates 205 parks, but most either have no bathrooms or have facilities with limited hours. In the central city, where many homeless people congregate, only five of 22 parks have restroom facilities, the report shows. The city recently shut down public facilities in Cesar Chavez Plaza that once served as the main source of relief for homeless people.
Many of those men and women now use bathrooms at the Central Library, and the impact on the building has been substantial, according to director Rivkah Sass. Sass said the library spends tens of thousands of dollars each year cleaning up urine and excrement outside the building.
"At some point we have to make public facilities available to people," Sass said. "To me, it feels like a basic human right to be able to use the bathroom in comfort. Besides, it's not as if eliminating bathrooms makes the problem go away."
Sass has pushed for portable toilets to be placed and serviced outside of the library at night, but her efforts have so far been unsuccessful.
The homeless group’s report calls for the city to reopen the Cesar Chavez Park bathroom and staff it around the clock, add other public toilets and fund shower facilities and “hygiene centers” in central locations close to transportation.
City officials are finalizing their own examination of public restroom facilities and are scheduled to present their findings to the City Council later this month. In the meantime, city spokeswoman Linda Tucker said parks restrooms aren't the only facilities available to the homeless.
Tucker said there are 86 locations throughout the city with public restrooms, including parks, public buildings and community centers. Of those, 29 have restrooms that are open 24 hours a day, Tucker said. She added there are 20 public restrooms in the central city, five of which are available 24 hours a day.
Tucker said that about 10 percent of park bathrooms are typically closed at any given time due to maintenance or vandalism.
Access to public restrooms may become a new battleground as city officials, neighborhood residents, homeless advocates and business interests debate how to ease the city's burgeoning homeless population. Mayor Darrell Steinberg and the City Council are emerging from a tense campaign to convince residents in North Sacramento that a 200-bed shelter in that neighborhood has been a success and are preparing to find at least two more shelter sites elsewhere in the city.
Homeless advocates have for months pleaded with the City Council to add public restrooms, especially downtown. But central city business leaders are concerned about concentrating restroom facilities in that part of town, especially as new investment is transforming many long-dormant blocks.
"We absolutely understand the need for accessible public restrooms, but placing them in areas with limited oversight and without fully understanding the impacts is not the right answer," said Michael Ault, head of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership. "This has the potential to make the existing impacts (of homelessness) even more challenging."
The projects being proposed by Erlenbusch could be costly. A “Portland Loo” project designed by police, fire and maintenance crews in that city costs about $90,000 per facility. A “community refresh center” in LA had a price tag of about $1.8 million.
Sacramento in 2016 tried a mobile restroom called Pit Stop, modeled after a program in San Francisco, in the city’s River District. It was staffed by two attendants and had three stalls, plus a trash receptacle. But it was abandoned after six months primarily because it would have cost $347,198 annually to operate.
In its first three-and-a-half months, the restroom was used more than 9,000 times and a needle disposal in the facility was used 649 times, according to a city staff report.
Erlenbusch said money for such innovations would be a smart investment. He pointed out that the city spends about $350,000 annually cleaning up waste from homeless people. That would support multiple “Portland Loos,” he said. “It would be a cost-effective investment to deliver dignity to homeless people and public hygiene to local businesses and residents.”