Bay News Rising

Professional and college reporters training collaboratively for the future of Bay Area journalism. Bay News Rising is a project of the Pacific Media Workers Guild made possible by the labor and contributions of its members.

How three cities are struggling to provide restrooms for the unhoused

Marquetta remembers the exact date she moved into a private room at a Market Street hotel in San Francisco. It was April 7, 2020. The formerly homeless woman was moved from the streets  by city workers as San Francisco implemented its shelter-in-place housing program. She calls the room, a small, single-bed unit with a private bathroom, “my sanctuary.” 

Before the pandemic, the wait lists for transitional housing for the homeless in San Francisco rarely dropped below 1,000, and for many, the wait for housing – and clean, accessible restroom facilities with it – is years long.  

Being able to shower and use a clean restroom is something most people take for granted. But not having access to those facilities can be humiliating and a health hazard. Even shared facilities can be problematic. Marquetta, who asked that her last name not be published, said that an old leg injury was exacerbated by the dirty conditions she encountered. “You’re always around a lot of different bodies,” not all of them clean, she said. 

There are over 13,000 unhoused people in the Bay Area. As of 2019, the count was approximately 1,000 in Berkeley, 4,071 in Oakland, and 8,035 in San Francisco, according to the biennial point-in-time surveys. Many of these people struggle to walk to, or even find, readily accessible restrooms. And all too often that leads to piles of excrement and puddles of urine on city streets, in alleys and, in the most extreme cases, on the sides of businesses. 

Bay Area cities, including San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley have struggled with the issue of providing toilets for the unhoused. Costs – a single toilet like the green metal structures in some San Francisco neighborhoods can cost as much as $600,000 – and opposition from merchants and residents who fear the toilets will bring an influx of homeless to their neighborhoods has slowed deployment.

One of San Francisco’s $600,000 Pit Stop toilets on the east end of Golden Gate Park. Photo Credit: Bill Snyder

San Francisco’s restroom program, called Pit Stop, aims to add public toilets in multiple neighborhoods. Begun in 2014, it has moved into a higher gear during the pandemic. There are now 33 street toilets across 13 neighborhoods, including 10 that are open 24 hours a day. Five of those are “self-cleaning” and the rest are maintained by attendants. 

Although Berkeley’s homeless population is far smaller than San Francisco’s, it has nearly twice as many street toilets – 61, according to city records. 

Oakland officials provided ambiguous data on the number and costs of public restrooms in the city, but according to a local wiki page, there are 34 public toilets available, in varying stages of cleanliness and usability.

The Dirty Streets of San Francisco

San Francisco’s dirty streets have been roundly criticized and lampooned in local and even national media. Stories of disgusted tourists who vow never to return have embarrassed city officials into acting.  

San Francisco tripled, to $12 million, what it spends on street toilets during the pandemic, according to Rachel Gordon, a Public Works Department spokeswoman. There are proposals to increase spending even more by expanding the hours the toilets are attended, but Gordon concedes that the escalating cost of maintenance and hardware makes that unlikely. 

Ten portable toilet trailers, which were allocated to sanctioned encampments, for example, cost the city a total of $742,638.00. Each Pit Stop toilet costs approximately $600,000. According to the program’s website, the Pit Stop program services 300,000-plus uses a year, with 1.5 million flushes annually. Each flush costs approximately $30. 

Contradictorily, though, the city has removed toilets from several areas as it moved to eliminate tent encampments along city streets where unhoused residents stay. 

Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes the Tenderloin, reacted furiously to the move. “How about the visibility of people defecating in the streets and pooping all over our sidewalks and the inhumanity of it?” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s beneath a city as wealthy as ours to make people go on the streets.”

While some merchants say having a Pit Stop nearby is bad for business, others say the street toilets have been a boon. A server at the Taylor Street Coffee Shop, which has a nearby Pit Stop, said the café had been plagued by people urinating outside the doors. “But there haven’t been any problems recently; we just direct people to the Pit Stop,” the server said.  

Advocates for the homeless argue that the lack of basic hygiene has profound implications. “It’s such a struggle to shower and clean clothes. The amount of effort that takes, no wonder there is such a difficulty exiting homelessness; hygiene levels are critical to that,” said Christin Evans, a volunteer for San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness.

Berkeley’s $4.5 million fix

While people wander the streets at all hours of the day and night, much of Berkeley’s 1,000-strong homeless population congregates around several main encampments. There’s one between Adeline Street and Civic Center Park on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, another near the University Avenue freeway overpass, and the long-time tents and community kitchen erected at People’s Park, a site of decades of confrontations. 

Finding restrooms for that many people is expensive. Berkeley plans to spend approximately $4.5 million to add and refurbish restrooms across the city. 

The money will come from funds raised by Measure T1, passed in 2016, which authorizes the city to sell $100 million of general obligation bonds to repair, renovate, replace or reconstruct the city’s aging infrastructure and facilities.

Berkeley has already built a temporary shelter and added between 20 and 25 bathrooms and handwash stations during the pandemic, and there are now around 61 public toilets in Berkeley

Even so, many of Berkeley’s homeless still struggle to find accessible restrooms. In a survey of unhoused people in Berkeley, most cited limited hours, safety concerns and dirty conditions as barriers to toilet access.

 Here’s how the money is to be spent: 

  • $1.35 million will be used to remodel restroom sites identified in the 2020 Citywide Restroom Study as needing improvements. Although public comment slated for later this year could prompt a change in plans, the city expects to upgrade the severely dilapidated public toilets in the Telegraph Channing garage, Ashby BART Station, University Avenue and San Pablo Avenue, all frequent stops for unhoused people. 
  • Toilet replacements for the Willard Park Clubhouse restrooms – frequently used by many unhoused people in Berkeley – will cost $500,000. Adding four to six toilets in the Tom Bates Community Center restrooms will cost between $1.5 and $2 million.
  • The plan includes $500,000 for replacements of the porta-potties at Ohlone Park and $450,000 for renovations of restrooms at Harrison public park, as well as restroom renovations at the Berkeley waterfront estimated to cost $400,000. New restrooms at Cesar Chavez Park and Spinnaker will cost $350,000.

In total, nine new or refurbished restrooms will be paid for by the city. 

Staying Clean in Oakland

LavaMae X’s public showers in Oakland nclude both a toilet and a sink. Photo Credit: Courtesy of LavaMae X

In Oakland, 41% of the more than 4,000 unhoused people are living in tents, and 54% have been on the street for a year or more.  Even before the pandemic, finding clean toilets was a struggle for the unhoused, but homeless advocates in Oakland have worked to help fill the breach. LavaMae X, a non-profit organization, has installed public toilets and portable showers in the Temescal district. 

Some renovations or additions of public restrooms in Oakland come from Measure DD, passed by Oakland voters in 2002 for revitalization of the waterfront district around Lake Merritt and 12th Street. A locally maintained website called Oakland Wiki describes the 12th Street restroom as  “A marvel of modern design, none of us can still quite believe that it’s real.”

In total, according to its fiscal-year budget, Oakland will spend approximately $1.5 million on renovations for Lake Merritt restrooms. The city also expects to add cleaning staff but money hasn’t yet been allocated. Also unallocated is money for renovations to restrooms at Union Point Park. 

“There are no other showers in Temescal, so increasing access to hygiene has helped guests in

the area restore their dignity and sense of optimism. We’re getting recurring guests and they

seem more positive each week,” said Samantha Reardon, LavaMae X’s Bay Area services manager, who doubles as a restroom attendant.. 

“Being clean does something to your psyche just as much as being dirty does. Maybe you’re able to go into the library again because you don’t stink,” she said. 

Maria, a homeless Oakland woman, put it this way: “LavaMae X helped me stay clean, optimistic and in touch with who I was. The staff treated me as an equal and that helped me move forward week by week until I secured my own apartment. Now I feel like I am living the life I deserve.”

Marquetta also feels that way. She plans to get a job online and invite her grandchildren and her son to visit. 

“When I first got (to the hotel), I was able to have the peace of mind to sit down and do my homework. In the shelter, you had to leave every day and if you didn’t get up at wahoo hours of the morning you had to wait to take a shower and then there were so many people from the street, it was dirty with bugs and nasty. I got sick using the bathrooms once, “she said. 

“Now if I chose to, I don’t have to go out and I’m okay with that. I’m able to keep my hygiene up. I’m able to shower and get in that water whenever I want to. This is my sanctuary right now. I’m so blessed to have this.”

– by Eliza Partika


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This entry was posted on September 21, 2021 by .
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