The Sacramento City Council on Tuesday will consider opening more restrooms for homeless people in the downtown area, following months of researching ways to reduce human waste and address public health concerns.
The city manager's office is recommending that the council allow homeless people to use restrooms in an existing building at North A and 14th streets in the River District, and contract with the county to help connect bathroom users with housing and medical and social services.
The pilot project would cost about $625,000 to run 12 hours a day, seven days a week, the city manager's office estimates. Its report also urges the council to spend about $5,000 installing signs directing people to public restrooms, and to "continue exploring restroom options" in other parts of the city.
As Sacramento's homelessness crisis has deepened, advocates have called for expanded access to public bathrooms. According to a report issued earlier this year by the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, restrooms for homeless people are few and scattered, especially in the downtown area. As a result, the report said, homeless men and women often are forced to use streets, alleyways and parkways to relieve themselves.
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But central city business leaders are concerned about adding too many public restrooms to that part of town.
In March, the council asked staff members to consider whether the city should open restrooms around the clock at such locations as New City Hall and the Central Library, as well as other options.
Operating City Hall restrooms around the clock and seven days a week would cost about $375,000 the first year, mostly for additional security guards, janitors and maintenance, according to the report to be presented Tuesday. "This option would require detailed after hours operating procedures and rules," it says.
The Central Library option "would require security in multiple locations and was determined to be cost prohibitive," the report says.
It calls the North A Street option "the most feasible" and preferable because it will seek to address "the underlying cause of the broader issue" of homelessness. Offering restroom users "wraparound services" such as help in finding health care and housing will "provide support to move people out of homelessness permanently," it reads.
Among the city's other options, according to the report, are installing portable toilets on City Hall Grounds, buying a towaway restroom trailer or installing a permanent bathroom facility known as a "Portland Loo."
In 2016, Sacramento tried out a mobile restroom called Pit Stop, modeled after a program in San Francisco, in the 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 been too costly to continue operating, officials concluded.
Since then, the area's homelessness crisis has worsened. A census last year found that the county had 30 percent more homeless people than it did two years earlier. Various city and county programs are aimed at finding permanent housing for people without stable homes.
Bob Erlenbusch, director of the homelessness coalition pushing for more bathroom access, said the issue is a moral dilemma and public health concern. Homeless encampments have been blamed for fouling the American River, and for contributing to hepatitis outbreaks elsewhere in the state. At the Central Library alone, the bills for cleaning up human urine and excrement outside the building are substantial, said library director Rivkah Sass.
Erlenbusch said he was pleased to see that the city and county are willing to work together on the project on North A Street, a staging area for the Winter Sanctuary program that operates November through early April.
"But this was supposed to be a report on recommendations on operating additional bathrooms, and bathrooms are a small but important part of the city's $625,000 ask" for the project, he said. Most of the investment on the project will go toward "subsidizing a county service," in which case managers link homeless people to housing, Erlenbusch noted.
Erlenbusch said his agency will ask the council to expand on the city staff's recommendations and open more restrooms.
Otherwise, he said, "homeless people still will be forced to use the river, alleys and parks as their bathroom."