Editorials

Everybody poops. Sacramento must make sure homeless people can do it in a toilet

A homeless man waits for the Central Library to open. Librarians and other staff members have received training to understand and deal with homeless people, as many use public restrooms inside every day.
A homeless man waits for the Central Library to open. Librarians and other staff members have received training to understand and deal with homeless people, as many use public restrooms inside every day. rpench@sacbee.com

Given the smears of human feces staining downtown sidewalks and the smell of urine stinking up alleys all over midtown, a serious discussion about ways to put more public restrooms in Sacramento should have happened years ago.

But it didn’t, and homeowners and apartment dwellers who’ve had to deal with the unsanitary side effects of the city’s burgeoning homeless population have paid the price. Residents deserve more, and so do homeless people.

Members of the Sacramento City Council should remember that on Tuesday night, when they decide what to do about a staff report that shows a startling lack of access to public toilets in the central city, particularly after hours. A separate assessment of the city’s parks by the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness came up with similar findings.

The public policy response should be obvious: Open more restrooms that are available all day, every day — and do it immediately.

Failing to do so puts the city at risk for the kind of public health disaster that happened in San Diego last year, when unsanitary conditions led to a deadly outbreak of hepatitis A. Already, there have been reports of unsafe levels of E. coli bacteria in the lower half of the American River Parkway, where homeless people camp and use the water as a toilet.

This is why council members must be aggressive with solutions. City staff has recommended some short-term measures, including funding more “hot spot” crews to scrub human excrement from sidewalks and roadways, and creating maps and brochures to show people where the city’s 85 existing public restrooms are located.

That’s a start. But it's not the same as preventing poop from being on the sidewalk in the first place.

Far more effective would be Councilman Steve Hansen’s plan to install an easy-to-clean, Portland Loo-style restroom somewhere downtown. Cesar Chavez Plaza has come up as a preferred location, as it is next to the Central Library, where homeless people tend to congregate and answer nature's call outside, costing tens of thousands of dollars each year in cleanup fees.

But that location has drawn objections from the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, which fears that adding a public restroom will only make Cesar Chavez Plaza a bigger magnet for homeless people — as if the downtown park weren’t already a big magnet.

"Nobody is discounting the need, but let's make sure we're really thinking about where we're putting it," Michael Ault, head of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, told The Bee’s Ryan Lillis and Cynthia Hubert.

The thinking seems to be that a new public restroom would only be used by homeless people. But that underestimates the need for public toilets in downtown and midtown Sacramento overall.

Far from the ghost town that it once was, the central city is booming with residents. In the evenings, it's packed with people bar-hopping, attending festivals and marches, and Sacramento Kings games. These people have the same bodily functions as homeless people, and would surely use a public toilet were one available.

The downtown partnership is onto something, though, with its calls for the city to identify more existing restrooms in public buildings, and pay people to monitor them to deter drug use or other criminal activity. There's no reason City Hall's restrooms, with its station of security guards nearby, shouldn't stay open all night.

There's also no reason more downtown businesses can't open their restrooms to the public. This isn't just a problem for government to solve. Poop on the streets affects everyone.

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