I was never the biggest fan of rain before moving to Sacramento. But, these days, I often find myself searching the sky for gray clouds. A good downpour, I’ve come to understand, is about the only way the smears of human poop will get washed off the city’s sidewalks, and the stench of urine and vomit will disappear from the city’s alleys.
That residents have to rely on Mother Nature to mitigate a man-made public health problem is ridiculous. But apparently this is how we roll in Sacramento. We’re a city with leaders who insist we’re “world class” enough to host an NBA All-Star game, but can’t find the political will to provide enough public restrooms for homeless people so no one has to scrub feces off the sidewalk.
This isn’t normal and it has to change. It will come down to money, yes. But, mostly, it’s about priorities.
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For years, the Sacramento City Council has been ignoring agitated homeless advocates, and now, with a rapidly gentrifying central city, sky-high housing costs and a ballooning homeless population, the problem has become a perfect poopstorm.
On Monday, the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness released an independent assessment of the public-restroom situation in the city’s more than 200 parks. It found that most didn’t have toilets at all, and of those that did, about a third were closed and the rest were open only during the day.
Meanwhile, the options are even slimmer downtown and in midtown. There, the nonprofit found that only five of the city’s 22 parks have restrooms – none that are open 24 hours a day.
To be fair, the city had its reasons for closing the restrooms. Homeless people have been known to destroy them, ripping out sinks and clogging toilets with used needles. After the City Council shut many of Sacramento’s restrooms to save money during the recession, many residents lobbied to keep them closed so they wouldn’t become magnets for crime or illicit drug use.
But that reasoning doesn’t fly anymore.
Because those restrooms are closed, residents are scooping human excrement off of their front lawns and government workers are stepping over it every day on their way to lunch – because that’s appetizing.
Homeless people have to head to the Central Library to relieve themselves, but that’s only during the day and at a cost of thousands of dollars in cleaning fees. When the sun goes down, there are no toilets available anywhere.
The city recently conducted a study of its own on restrooms, both in parks and other locations. The findings will be discussed in detail later this month, but staffers counted a total of 86 publicly accessible toilets, 29 of which were open all day and all night.
Homeless advocates are skeptical of the number, as am I. There’s also the matter of how many of these restrooms are in unapproachable places, such as the Capitol, the Convention Center, the California State Lottery and the Crocker Art Museum.
Who believes a homeless person, filthy from living along the American River Parkway, is going to be allowed to wander into the Crocker or the Capitol without being stopped? Homeless people can’t even wander into Safeway.
And what happens when the city starts pointing homeless people toward those public restrooms owned by the state and the county, and no one wants to foot the bill to clean them more frequently?
There has to be a broader communitywide commitment to providing more public restrooms that are open 24 hours a day. And, yes, a lot of them will have to go in the central city where most homeless people live, which means the Downtown Sacramento Partnership is going to have to get over its squeamishness about concentrating restrooms near businesses.
Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, Erika_D_Smith