City Beat

Sacramento councilman considers portable toilets for homeless

An attendant looks on as a man enters a Pit Stop public toilet outside a Mission District transit station in San Francisco on July 30, 2015.
An attendant looks on as a man enters a Pit Stop public toilet outside a Mission District transit station in San Francisco on July 30, 2015. The Associated Press

Sacramento Councilman Jeff Harris thinks half of the region’s homeless population wanders through the neighborhood of warehouses and shelters north of downtown known as the River District every day. That didn’t seem so far-fetched Thursday morning at the corner of Ahern and North A streets.

A gentleman with a long beard slept in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk. A couple sat in chairs outside a van that appeared to hold all of their belongings. A man wearing underwear on his head stumbled down the middle of the street. Others pushed shopping carts, scattering when a pickup carrying two police officers rolled onto the street.

Some days, as many as 20 tents sit near this street corner within view of the downtown skyline.

Out of this mess has come a proposal for a new tool in the city’s struggle to address the public health impact of homelessness: two flush toilets on an elevated trailer, monitored by paid attendants and equipped with garbage bins to hold pet waste and used needles. The cost to taxpayers: up to $15,000 a month.

The idea, pushed by Harris, would be modeled after the “Pit Stop” program in San Francisco, where 11 toilets are run by the city’s public works department. Tanks under the toilets are emptied regularly and the toilets are open mostly during the day, when most shelters are closed. Harris wants to set up one facility near Ahern and North A streets on a trial run.

For now, many of the homeless men and women who emerge daily from one of the many shelters or service providers in the River District use the cover of a large transformer box on North A Street as a toilet. You can smell it from 50 feet away, which means you can also smell it inside Quinn Cottages, a collection of small homes that serve as transitional housing for the homeless.

Some might argue that installing an attended bathroom in the neighborhood will attract new homeless to an area that is already heavily impacted by that population. A similar argument has been made about building a sanctioned tent city. Harris doesn’t buy it, at least not with the bathroom idea.

“People are not going to walk from downtown to use this bathroom,” he said.

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Harris is on a City Council subcommittee formed by Mayor Kevin Johnson that’s exploring ways to tackle homelessness in Sacramento. He’s the most low-profile of the three council members on the panel. Jay Schenirer is the chairman and has become the leading voice on many homeless issues, including the case being made for a sanctioned tent city. Steve Hansen is also on the panel and has emerged as the chief skeptic of tent cities.

Harris is one of the more progressive members of the City Council. But he had to be sold on the tent city model and said he thinks there could be a spot for it in the city’s broader strategy to address homelessness.

“We’re not straying from our path of getting housing for everybody,” he said. “But there are people who need help now. They need some safety and stability.”

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Homelessness has become the most visible issue this year in Sacramento, due in part to a three-month protest outside City Hall by activists who want an end to the city’s anti-camping law. The candidates for mayor are asked for their ideas on homelessness all the time. No one at City Hall pretends to have all the answers.

And yet even as he’s confronted with scenes such as what he saw at Ahern and North A last week, Harris has hope.

“We’ve got a manageable situation, if we keep our heads on straight,” he said.

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