Faced with an appalling shortage of public toilets in the Skid Row area, Los Angeles city officials promised in July to put up 10 more toilets by mid-September. Time's up, but the toilets are not — at least not yet. City officials say they will unveil within a month a mobile "hygiene center" in the midst of Skid Row on a city-owned parking lot, offering toilets, hand-washing stations, showers, and half a dozen stacked washers and dryers for laundry. There will be security personnel as well as formerly homeless people working at the site, along with outreach workers who can steer people to housing and services. So, if downtown homeless people can hold it for a month, they'll get 10 toilets and more.
It may sound like the city is creating an elaborate toilet theme park when a bunch of port-a-potties would do. But simply planting a port-a-potty on a dark street corner can create more problems, becoming a magnet for predators and drug users. Toilets need a certain amount of security as well as constant cleaning. The model of a cluster of toilets with sinks has been successful in other cities.
A bathroom is not just an amenity, it is a necessity — and with 34,000 homeless people in Los Angeles, more are desperately needed, not just downtown but in other areas of the city that have high concentrations of homeless people. Meanwhile, restrooms in some parks — particularly in Venice near the beach — need to stay open around the clock, not the eight hours per day planned by the city.
Officials who designed the Skid Row hygiene center say they can get the next ones up faster. Good. We shouldn't have to remind the city that going to the bathroom is an urgent need. Part of the problem is finding lots on which to place the trailers that house the mobile facilities. Anyone who has a parking lot to offer should call the city.
Not having enough toilets and sanitary facilities is the precursor to a public health crisis. Witness what's been happening in San Diego, where an outbreak of hepatitis A — a disease that spreads when people fail to wash their hands after going to the bathroom — has left 16 people dead and nearly 300 hospitalized. More than half the afflicted are homeless people. Now the city is scrambling to erect industrial tents with beds and hygiene facilities. In Anaheim, city officials calculated that taking away a few port-a-potties along the Santa Ana river would reduce the number of homeless people camped there. It has not.
You don't make homeless people vanish by refusing to provide toilets. You just end up with unsanitary conditions for everyone.