Opinion

Editorial: Why on Earth is it so hard to put out toilets for L.A.'s homeless?

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An attendant manages portable toilets for homeless people in East Hollywood on June 7.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Of the 36,300 people who are homeless in the city of Los Angeles, about 27,000 are living outside or in their cars and RVs, according to the most recent count. Yet there are only 31 public toilets operated by the city for the homeless. That’s a lot of people waiting for a bathroom — if there’s one near them at all or open when they need it.

That’s a profound problem, obviously, because no one should be compelled to use sidewalks and alleyways as toilets, and the rest of us shouldn’t have to live with the results of that. But it’s not just a moral issue or a quality-of-life issue — it’s also a serious public health threat that needs to be addressed. Last fall, Los Angeles County declared a hepatitis A outbreak among homeless people and illicit drug users, and eight cases of typhus were diagnosed among homeless people in the city.

So why hasn’t the bathroom problem been solved? The city has been grappling, unsuccessfully, with how to provide toilets to homeless people, particularly on skid row, off and on for a quarter-century — putting out portable toilets, then hauling them away when they became sites of crime and vandalism. This problem predates Mayor Eric Garcetti, but during his time in office, it has remained disappointingly unsolved as homeless encampments have grown and spread across the entire city.

This is a public emergency, a humanitarian crisis, a health threat — and it shouldn’t take years and years to solve.

Sure, it’s complicated. You can’t just plop down a porta-potty on a corner. The 31 public restrooms include seven automated toilets and nine mobile bathroom stations. Each of the mobile bathrooms has two toilets and a hand-washing station and stays open 12 hours a day, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Also among the 31 are six toilets at a hygiene center on skid row. All these restrooms are staffed full-time. And that’s essential, according to city officials as well as homeless advocates. Unattended public bathrooms near homeless encampments have too often been used for illicit activities, including prostitution and drug use. People have even been known to commandeer a bathroom and make others pay to use it.

Obviously, there are still far too few bathrooms for the 27,000 people who need them. But just maintaining and operating each of the mobile bathrooms comes at a staggering cost of $339,000 a year. And they’re not even open at night. If they were open 24 hours a day (as they unquestionably should be) it would cost $660,000 a year, the mayor’s office estimates. That’s more than the average cost of building a unit of permanent supportive housing for a homeless person.

How can this be? How can we not have solved this problem after decades? And is it really not possible to find a cheaper way forward? City officials say they are looking for less expensive solutions and that they have reached out to service providers and nonprofits that have buildings where restrooms could be made available and stay open later. (Some already do this.) Councilman Mike Bonin — who pushed for and finally got the restrooms at Venice Beach to stay open 24 hours — suggests that city facilities like libraries or recreation centers could open their bathrooms at night. That won’t always be feasible, but it’s worth exploring. Also, toilets in some parts of the city may need constant staffing, but perhaps not all of them need that level of security.

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We just need more bathrooms. The situation is desperate. People are defecating on the streets. Communities that balk at seeing portable restrooms in their neighborhoods should realize this is not about sanctioning or “normalizing” encampments; it’s about providing people who are already living in them with an alternative to using lawns and sidewalks as toilets.

This is a public emergency, a humanitarian crisis, a health threat — and it shouldn’t take years and years to solve. The city is getting tens of millions of dollars in new state funding this year for homeless services. While we would rather see those dollars spent on housing — even temporary shelter — if some portion of it needs to be spent on bathrooms, then do it. If there’s bureaucratic red tape, cut it. It took the city nearly a year to install an elaborate hygiene center called the ReFresh Spot on skid row. (It opened, then it closed, then it reopened.) It’s definitely an asset — with six toilets plus showers, hand-washing stations and laundry facilities. But why not put up more, faster?

Obviously, the long-term goal is to get homeless people off the streets and into permanent housing — but that won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, let’s stop depriving them of toilets.

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