Alleys, bushes can’t keep being toilets for homeless people

“Pit Stop” restrooms for the homeless on Ahern Street between North A and B streets could close by the end of the year.
“Pit Stop” restrooms for the homeless on Ahern Street between North A and B streets could close by the end of the year. aseng@sacbee.com

Lisa Culp, executive director of the nonprofit Women’s Empowerment, remembers all too well what the River District was like before the city of Sacramento started parking a trailer there every day so homeless men and women could relieve themselves in one of the air-conditioned stalls.

She remembers the feces strewn about parking lots, alleyways coated in smelly urine and grassy patches becoming the final destination for used syringes.

“My staff spent the first hour of every day cleaning up excrement, toilet paper and hypodermic needles, so that when the women and children came to the program to prepare themselves to enter the job world, they didn’t have to walk into that,” Culp told the City Council on Tuesday.

With dozens of homeless people using the toilets on the trailer every day, the River District isn’t nearly as disgusting as it used to be. And yet, the Pit Stop program is in danger of being cut, morphed into a version that’s cheaper, but hopefully just as effective.

The question is how long will it take to get up and running. In the meantime, the council on Tuesday all but decided to end its contract with the company responsible for providing attendants for the Pit Stop. Instead, the council asked for information on ways to modify the program, perhaps hiring attendants to staff restrooms in parks, churches or nonprofit agencies.

The biggest issue with the current program is the cost. At $1,000 per day – or $11 per flush – it’s expensive. The trailer, with its three air-conditioned stalls, one that’s ADA-compliant, is bigger than the one the city wanted. It has to be taken down every night and transported off site and back again in the morning – another expense the city didn’t anticipate.

But there are many ways to assess the value of a program beyond just dollars and cents. And as council members ponder the Pit Stop’s future, they should keep Culp’s words in mind.

The cost of ending the program – even for a few months, just to study it – will create an unacceptable gap in services in the River District. Providing restrooms is no substitute for housing, but it’s the least the city can do for people who are forced to camp outside, unable to gain access to packed shelters. What’s more, it will force residents and business owners to once again clean up feces and needles, hopefully calling 311 every time to push the issue with the city.

This is a real problem that needs a real solution.