DOWNTOWN : Merchants Debate Toilets for Homeless

As 24-hour portable toilets were about to be installed this week for homeless people on Skid Row, shop owners expressed mixed feelings about the six-month pilot program.

“The toilets are OK,” said John Lee, owner of General Toys at 4th Street and Towne Avenue. As long as they’re not directly in front of his business, he said, “it’s no problem for me.”

But another merchant, who asked to remain anonymous, said the portable toilets would draw more transients and homeless people into his neighborhood and hurt his business.

“A lot of customers, they’ll be afraid to come,” he said. “It’s going to cause chaos.”


Pending any appeals from business owners, 21 outhouses are scheduled to be installed on Skid Row sidewalks beginning Monday in an area bounded by 2nd and 7th streets, Gladys Avenue and Main Street, said Matt Callahan, director of administration for the city’s housing department.

Officials have yet to determine where in the southeast part of Skid Row to place two more toilets.

The city’s Board of Public Works approved spending $53,000 on the toilets July 18. Since then, housing officials have sent notices to affected businesses, which were given until last Wednesday to file an appeal.

Alice Callaghan, a community activist who spearheaded the push for portable toilets through City Hall sit-ins and other demonstrations, doubts that any appeal would be found warranted by city officials.


"(Businesses) may appeal, but they will have a difficult time prevailing because we carefully chose locations where we would not in any way be interfering with business,” said Callaghan, executive director of Las Familias del Pueblo.

“The locations are like blank walls, the corners of buildings where people are urinating now,” she said.

Callaghan has agreed to have one of the portable toilets installed in front of her garment workers’ community center at 307 E. 7th St.

“It will definitely make (Skid Row) cleaner and improve what’s really a serious health risk at the moment,” she said.

Not so, say some homeless service providers.

“Unless they’re supervised around the clock, they don’t work,” said Martha Brown Hicks, president of Skid Row Development Corp.

“I’ve been in Skid Row 16 years, (and) people will still urinate and defecate on the street.”

Hicks believes some homeless people will abuse the urinals and use them for private drug use or to commit assaults or other violent crimes.


At Midnight Mission on Los Angeles Street, where one of the portable toilets will be installed, assistant supervisor Tony Anthony said if the toilets are not cleaned daily, then “people will use the bathroom out on the street.”

Even the homeless have mixed thoughts about the urinals.

“We need them,” said Patricia Harris, 35.

“Late at night, the women have nowhere to go to the bathroom. They won’t use them for smokehouses. There’s other places to smoke (cocaine).”

But the portable toilet project, though “a darn good idea,” won’t solve the blight on Skid Row, said Charles Madden, 48.

“It’ll slow it down, but it won’t stop” people from urinating or defecating in public, Madden said.

“Some people just don’t care.”