With the population of people living on the street at a record high, Sacramento City Hall is focusing on sheltering the homeless. But advocates for months have consistently pushed for action on another front: providing places for people to relieve themselves.
There are 85 public restrooms within the city – 28 of which are open 24 hours a day, according to a city report released Thursday. But that number isn't enough, officials said, and the city is exploring a long list of ideas to address the gap.
"We have a need by our homeless community to have access to restrooms," said Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents downtown. "When nature calls, it's clear people don’t put that call on hold."
One idea already facing opposition is placing a permanent, single-stall restroom in downtown's Cesar Chavez Plaza designed after the Portland Loo public restrooms. The Portland facilities have flush toilets, are generally placed on the sidewalk and are open 24 hours a day.
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While Hansen and others haven't settled on Cesar Chavez as the preferred location for a Portland Loo, the councilman said "at this point, it seems like the most viable location." The facility could easily be hooked up to the city's water and sewer systems and would be in a highly visible location.
Michael Ault, head of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, said his organization is not opposed to adding public restrooms downtown. But he said the city should consider sites other than Cesar Chavez, including the courtyard between the historic and new City Hall buildings.
"If they're going to spend that money, let's put it in a site with oversight and security for those that are using the facility," Ault said. "Nobody is discounting the need, but let's make sure we're really thinking about where we're putting it."
The city recently shut down facilities in Cesar Chavez Plaza that once served as the main source of relief for homeless people. Many now use bathrooms at the nearby Central Library, but the building is closed overnight.
Director Rivkah Sass said the library spends tens of thousands of dollars each year to clean urine and excrement outside the building. She said before that the library also spent $15,600 in one year on a specialty cleaning company for indoor bathrooms.
Sass said the Portland Loo idea at Cesar Chavez would be "fantastic."
"It's just what we need," she said. "I imagine folks here just want a clean place, toilet paper and water for washing. Basic human dignity options that we all deserve."
Sacramento officials are recommending the city create maps and visitor brochures showing where public restrooms are located, fund “hot spot” cleanup crews that would get dispatched to remove human waste from sidewalks and other public right-of-ways, give financial incentives to businesses that open their restrooms to the public and offer a permanent restroom with attendants in the River District.
Bob Erlenbusch, who runs the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, said he is not confident the city's current plan will have an immediate impact.
"It's pretty disappointing," he said. "In the short term, they want to have signs and dispatch cleanup crews? That really misses the whole point.
"There seems to be no sense of urgency at all. You wouldn't need cleanup crews if you would just open up a couple of bathrooms."
Hansen countered that "we're making progress on this issue."
"It's been a complicated one, but I think we've got a real plan that will respond to the community's requests in a way that ensures we continue to deliver a high-quality service," he said.