S.F. Offers Cautionary Tales on Pay Toilets

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If Los Angeles officials want a glimpse of what might result from their decision to install 150 pay toilets around town, including in its most downtrodden areas, they need only consult Robert Anderson.

Each day, the downtown parking attendant watches drug-addled street denizens with their shaking hands and dirty bedrolls congregate at the corner of 6th and Mission on San Francisco's skid row.

At the oval-shaped pay toilet, one of 25 installed by the same French company with which L.A. officials are negotiating, the parade of crack addicts and prostitutes subjects the facility to just about everything but what it was designed for.

"Nobody goes to the bathroom," Anderson said. "They've turned that toilet into a shooting gallery, a house of prostitution and a homeless crash pad. And that's during the daytime. The nights are worse."

While they admit there are problems, San Francisco officials are pleased with the success of their 6-year-old program to put the 25-cent, self-cleaning toilets in areas serving both the tourist population and the city's homeless residents.

The toilets function so well, especially in such tourist areas as Fisherman's Wharf, that they plan to install more, they say.

The manufacturer, the JCDecaux company, says the forest-green lavatories, now in 550 cities worldwide, get a bad rap. Company officials say drug and prostitution problems existed long before the toilets came on the scene.

San Francisco Supervisor Gavin Newsom says he would simply warn Los Angeles: Watch where you put them.

"If we did it all over again, we'd give some locations much more scrutiny," he said, "because those toilets have become an attractive nuisance in high-traffic areas."

City officials concede that the problems are largely in areas with high homeless populations. Many toilets have been vandalized for quarters. Vandals pry open the doors, allowing several people to sleep or share drugs inside.

While JCDecaux maintenance crews each day clean up the hypodermic needles and condom wrappers, the 6th and Mission toilet has drawn so many complaints that city officials plan to move it.

In another pay washroom, a man was found dead of a heroin overdose. At another, police videotaped a prostitute at work for eight straight hours. City officials say the electronically controlled doors of the lavatories are routinely broken by vagrants who force their way inside, despite a city program to distribute free tokens.

San Francisco police recently asked JCDecaux to temporarily close several toilets at night to discourage loitering.

Police Capt. Ron Roth says the toilets have necessitated more police in some neighborhoods.

"The positives outweigh the negatives, but the toilets do compound our headaches at problem sites," he said. "They offer a behind-door place to commit crimes."

The Los Angeles City Council next month is expected to finalize a contract with Franco-American consortium Infinity Decaux to install the toilets. Many would be placed downtown, including on skid row.

Under an agreement used in San Francisco and other cities, Los Angeles would pay nothing for the toilets, which cost $150,000 each. The company would install the kiosks and then collect a fee for advertising on them.

JCDecaux officials say their toilets also are in use in San Jose and Palo Alto. Chicago and New York may also get some.

Los Angeles officials, led by Assistant City Atty. Chris Westhoff, recently visited the Bay Area, after a trip to France, to see the automated toilets in action. Westhoff said he was encouraged.

"I used one toilet in San Francisco without any problem," he said. "Of course, I didn't use it at 4 a.m. It was during broad daylight."

But L.A. City Councilman Dennis Zine, who was not on the trip, sees trouble ahead.

"I've read the police reports from San Francisco," he said. "In homeless areas, there's been great abuse of those toilets. If you want to address L.A.'s homeless problems, then let's address it. Don't just blow a smoke screen and pacify it with some pay toilet."

Jake Szeto, a project manager with San Francisco's Public Works Department, said the toilets have served 2.8 million users since 1995. The commodes, each a roomy 85 square feet, feature a seat that retracts into the wall where it is automatically washed and dried after each use. The sink and soap dispensers work by motion detectors.

The sliding door reopens after 20 minutes--a time frame won by advocates for the disabled.

Szeto said that even though some of the facilities are abused, "I don't blame the toilets. If people need a fix, they'll go where they have to go--behind some staircase or on the street. I'd rather have them do it behind closed doors than in front of small children."

Francois Nion, project manager for Infinity Decaux, agreed that the company is not responsible for a city's social ills.

"Many cities have graffiti on buildings, the sidewalks are not always clean, but this isn't our fault," he said. "We're just one element of the street scape, but we definitely add for the better."

San Francisco Supervisor Mark Leno, in whose district a man was found dead of a heroin overdose in a JCDecaux toilet, concurred. "These toilets are not cure-alls for our social ills. San Francisco still has a responsibility to clean up its street problems."

A JCDecaux maintenance worker at 6th and Mission streets regularly uses a clamp to scoop hypodermic needles and knives from the toilet trash container.

"I found 10 condoms here last week," he said with a frown. "Nobody does this job for long."

At a nearby cable car stop, Jay Dalessio offers pointers on forcing open a toilet door. "Here," he says, pushing with a shoulder until the door slides open. "Piece of cake."

He looks around at the line of tourists nearby. "Those folks are scared of this thing," he says. "We're not a stupid society. They know what's going on."

Tourist Tina Oswald examines the toilet. "There's so many people around, I'd look for another place unless it was an emergency," says the Philadelphia resident. "I don't think it'd be too clean, right here in the middle of the city."

Oakland resident Paula Smith had her doubts, too. "It's a good idea, but this would not be my toilet of choice," she said.

San Francisco city officials are discussing ways to reduce the vandalism and crime associated with the automated toilets. While they scout new locations for the lavatories, they're considering shortening the user time to 10 minutes and requiring the company to step up its maintenance.

One supervisor introduced a bill that prohibits two or more people from using the toilets at once and gives authorities greater powers to police the facilities.

Robert Anderson is in favor of anything that works. "Most street people really need these toilets," he says. "They've just got to do something about the bad element."

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