Faced with continuing issues with the local homeless population, officials in Costa Mesa have again floated the idea of installing new public restrooms that would provide a hygienic and safe place for people to relieve themselves.
City Councilman John Stephens broached the topic during Friday's meeting of a liaison committee made up of representatives from the city, Costa Mesa Sanitary, Mesa Water and Newport-Mesa Unified School districts.
The agencies, he said, could consider a pilot project to install one or two new restrooms away from parks where families gather.
"The idea would be to improve the sanitary problem we have and also to draw people out of places where children are," he said.
While no specific locations were mentioned during the meeting, Sanitary District board Vice President Jim Ferryman said he thinks the agencies could evaluate potential sites on a case-by-case basis and come up with a plan that would make sense for particular areas.
"I think we need to review different types of these facilities and come up with the one that's going to fit," said Ferryman, who first pitched the idea to his colleagues in January.
Such restrooms could cost upward of $100,000 apiece to purchase and install, depending on the model and location. Additional resources would also likely have to be dedicated for maintenance and enforcement, should issues arise.
In Ferryman's mind, the goal would be to have fixtures that are functional, but don't lend themselves to loiterers or illegal activity.
"It's got to be a Spartan-type of thing that gets the job done, and that's it," he said.
Costa Mesa city officials have grappled for years with drug use and other illegal activities taking place in public restrooms.
"Public toilets historically have had an issue in Costa Mesa, where the places they've been and the way that they've been constructed have been attractants for crime," Stephens said.
He pointed to the restrooms at Lions and Wilson parks, which were closed in 2015, due to public safety and health concerns.
"If you could create a public toilet that would be the absolute worst design, that would be it," he said of Wilson's restroom. "It's dark. Cinder block walls go all the way up to the sky. There were a lot of problems in there."
Last month, the city reopened restrooms in Lions Park to provide access during work on a series of projects that include construction of a new 22,860-square-foot library.
That only lasted about two weeks, as the area quickly became a gathering point for people using drugs, City Manager Tom Hatch told the city's Parks and Recreation Commission on Aug. 24.
The restrooms were again shuttered shortly thereafter.
Given what happened at Lions Park, Stephens said he thinks now is a good time to revisit the public restroom concept.
As officials noted Friday, locking up restrooms doesn't eliminate the need for people to go to the bathroom. Without access to facilities, some homeless individuals have been going in public instead.
Sanitary District board President Mike Scheafer pointed out that closing restrooms in parks also impacts residents — particularly those with children.
"You know what it's like when a 4-year-old has to go and there's no place to go," he said. "There's going to be a challenge, there, because we do need restrooms in some parks for kids."
The liaison committee previously discussed the idea of installing additional free-standing public restrooms during a meeting in January. Attendees then said the concept was intriguing — but required further study and should be part of an overarching look at local homelessness.
Councilman Allan Mansoor said the city and districts should approach the issue "from the perspective of, 'Is there any way to do this in a manner that helps people up and out of homelessness?' "
"If this is seen as enabling or encouraging or bringing more [homeless] to Costa Mesa, I think it backfires," he said.
Newport-Mesa board member Charlene Metoyer questioned whether putting in new restrooms would simply shift where homeless people congregate.
"The elephant in the room is, if you build it, will they come?" she said.
"That's the dilemma," she added later, "but I don't know anyone that wouldn't want someone to have a bathroom available for them if they need it. It's tough."
Mesa Water board President Jim Atkinson suggested discussing the topic with the Assn. of California Cities-Orange County.
"I worry about becoming a magnet if we're the only ones doing it," he said. "That's potentially an issue."
Sanitary District General Manager Scott Carroll proposed involving Costa Mesa's Network for Homeless Solutions — a team made up of city staff, community churches, volunteers, nonprofits and other private organizations.
Stephens agreed and said he'll work to put the matter on that team's agenda to get additional feedback.
After that, Stephens said he'll circulate those comments so the districts can have that information handy if and when they take the idea up themselves.
"It's something we want to make sure we hear from everybody on and take our time," he said.