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More public restrooms for the homeless? Idea needs more study, officials in Costa Mesa say

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The Portland Loo made by Madden Fabrication is an example of a free-standing public restroom. The city of Costa Mesa, Costa Mesa Sanitary District and Mesa Water District are discussing the concept of installing additional public restrooms that would be open to homeless people.
(Courtesy of Costa Mesa Sanitary District)

Officials from the city of Costa Mesa, Costa Mesa Sanitary District and Mesa Water District say installing additional free-standing public restrooms that would be open to homeless people is an interesting idea but that it requires further study and should be part of a bigger-picture look at local homelessness.

Earlier this month, sanitary district board members discussed the concept of installing the 24-hour public restrooms and brought the issue forward again Friday during a liaison committee meeting among the three agencies.

“This homeless issue is not going to go away,” said sanitary district board Vice President Jim Ferryman, who pitched the idea. “It’s getting worse, and for us to ignore basic human functions is not healthy.”

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The purpose of bringing the issue forward was to kick off a conversation about whether the idea could make sense in Costa Mesa, Ferryman said.

“If we find it’s prohibitive cost-wise or everyone’s afraid of it becoming a magnet for the homeless, that’s another story,” he said.

Friday’s meeting was a discussion only, so participating agencies didn’t take any official action on the idea.

One of the main issues with public restrooms, such as those in parks, is that they can be a sort of double-edged sword for cities.

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On one hand, homeless people who don’t have access to restrooms have no choice but to relieve themselves in public areas.

Costa Mesa city workers deal with that “pretty much on a daily basis,” said Assistant City Manager Rick Francis.

“Some of these folks just have no qualms about relieving themselves in front of whoever might be around,” Francis said during Friday’s meeting. “So it’s very commonplace.”

However, in some cases, public restrooms can morph into hotbeds of drug use or other illegal activity, sparking public safety and health worries.

In 2015, the city of Costa Mesa closed restrooms at Lions Park and Wilson Park in response to such concerns.

Though some available restroom models are designed in ways to discourage illegal activities, City Manager Tom Hatch said they still can present enforcement and maintenance challenges.

On top of that, such restrooms can be expensive to install — upward of $100,000 each, depending on the model and where it’s placed.

Those at Friday’s meeting said it’s possible the three agencies could split the cost or even bring in local businesses to help share it. But they also agreed that public restrooms should only be one part of much broader discussions on how to address homelessness.

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“This is a solution to part of the problem, but the problem is they don’t have homes,” said sanitary district board member Bob Ooten.

The city has employees who network with homeless people in the community, Hatch and Francis said.

Since January 2013, about 220 people have either been housed or reconnected “back to their places of origin with either family or services” as a result of the city’s efforts, according to Francis.

One of the challenges locally, he said, is that some homeless people don’t welcome the city’s assistance.

“We are doing substantial work to address those folks who do want help,” he said. “The more difficult population is the ones that we call ‘service resistant.’ They don’t want our help.”

Hatch said the city would welcome working with other agencies on homelessness issues.

“We’re in the trenches every week, and if folks want to join in, we don’t own this topic at all,” he said. “We need help and ... we can look at ways to move forward even better.”

luke.money@latimes.com

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Twitter: @LukeMMoney


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