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The Skid Row Toilet Crisis: How Basic Necessities Became a Political Warfare | Los Angeles

This article was supported by the Financial Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism non-profit organization

As the sun rises over Skid Row, a crane gently lifts a shiny two-unit toilet from the back of the truck onto the sidewalk. The new bathroom is rectangular and off-white with a vented roof and in this corner he replaces another unit that has been in place for over 15 years.

An upgrade is a moment of hope. But Skid, who calls Lowe home, finds a toilet a daily ordeal for more than 4,400 homeless people.

Residents have to juggle overlapping municipal programs, shelters and a patchwork of public toilets and toilets operated by nonprofits. The challenge is compounded by the fact that many toilets close overnight. Five years ago, according to a report called No Place to Go, Skid Row had only nine public toilets available for nighttime use by the approximately 1,800 people who lived there at the time, falling short of UN refugee camp standards for 80 toilets. fell below.

Although the situation improved, Skid Row’s population increased. According to The Guardian’s review of public facilities and information provided by the city, there are currently about 31 latrines open at all times, which is still far from UN standards.

The result is a vicious cycle, proponents say. Uncontained Angelenos often have no choice but to defecate outdoors, and are demonized for leaving human waste behind. The lack of hygiene and sanitation puts residents at risk of contracting staphylococci, meningitis, tuberculosis, hepatitis A, typhoid, and more, according to the LA County Health Department.

Last year's Skid Row community tent.
Last year’s Skid Row community tent. Photo: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

The situation is becoming more urgent as the homeless crisis worsens. Pandemic-era protections for renters are set to end in the next few weeks, with an expert saying he has 30,000 homes at risk of eviction. LA County’s homeless population hits more than 69,000 at the latest tally, and in Skid Row, a long-standing symbol of the U.S. housing crisis, the number of people living without homes has risen by more than 50% in the past six years. Increased. Annual count for the Angeles Homeless Service Authority (Lahsa).

On the October morning when the toilets were installed, Skid Row resident Montgomery Garnett approached a group of city officials gathered to watch. “Gentlemen, one important question,” he asked. “Has a feasibility study been done to confirm that this meets your needs?”

“We know it’s not enough,” says Lance Oishi, contract manager for StreetsLA, the city agency responsible for managing 15 public restrooms in Los Angeles.

Skid Row restrooms are always political. Branded by the media and his LAPD as a haven for drugs and sex work, it has served for decades as a key battlefield in recent years. Author and scholar Mike Davis called it “the city’s war on the homeless.” of portable toilets added.

Alice Callahan, director of Las Familias del Pueblo, a community center for garment workers and their families, said many business owners see the homeless people of Skid Row as a threat to their livelihoods, and the area’s He explained that he wanted to forcibly wipe out the “It was part of the battle that was going on at the time when the business world was trying to get people out of Skid Row,” she says. “They wanted the police to remove them from the sidewalk.”

By the late 1990s, business owners not only wanted the toilets removed, but they were lobbying the LA City Council to outlaw public urination and defecation.

The solution was a 20-year street furniture deal with Paris-based company JCDecaux to install 150 self-flush automatic toilets on the streets of LA. The contract will cover the cost of toilets through advertising in bus shelters, kiosks and kiosks. In addition to paying to install and maintain toilets, JCDecaux will build 1,250 new transit shelters and share a portion of the advertising revenue with the city.

But the contract quickly devolved into a bureaucratic nightmare. City officials were unable, if at all, to approve permits for bus shelters in a timely manner. In the end, only a minimum of 15 toilets were installed, well below the promised 150.

green facade street bathroom
APT toilets in the area. Photo: Meiling Tu

Five of these toilets landed in the heart of Skid Row between 2004 and 2010. Demand was immediate. According to StreetsLA records, the first Automated Public Toilet (APT) installed on Skid Row in 2004 performed up to 4,500 flushes per month. 150 flashes a day.

“People there really appreciated the toilets,” Oishi said. “They recognized that it was a community resource and that if someone destroyed or tampered with it, the city could shut them down or take them away.”

But tensions between the city and residents escalated when the city implemented a strategy known as the Safe Cities Initiative in 2006. As part of the initiative, 50 police officers were added to his 54 square block of Skid Row, and the city removed the existing portable His restrooms to keep homeless people from loitering around.

Police arrested about 9,000 people and issued about 12,000 tickets in the first year as the LAPD cracked down on uninhabited residents. The agency complained that the new toilets were being used for drugs and sex work like the previous mobile toilets.

But advocates say there is no evidence that toilets cause crime, questioning why the city invested millions in neighborhood security while still refusing to provide adequate sanitation. Charles Porter of the United Coalition East Prevention Project explains that the poor lack privacy and this encourages double standards.

Crane bathroom
Activists argue that instead of treating toilet access as a basic human right, Los Angeles authorities have used the toilet as a tool to discipline people. Photo: Meiling Tu

“If you go to Beverly Hills, if you go to Hollywood or a wealthy area, you’ll see people using drugs in the bathroom. Guess what – people have sex in the bathroom.

Activists say Los Angeles authorities are practicing systematic abandonment in their communities, and instead of treating access to bathrooms as a basic human right, they use the toilet as a tool to train residents and keep them under control. claims to be using

By 2012, the city had closed three of its five APTs from dusk to dawn at the request of the LAPD. Tensions reached new heights in 2015, the final year of the Safer Cities Initiative, when an unarmed man was shot dead by his LAPD officers a short distance from his tented APT. did. The murder of Charlie Leundu Kunan, dubbed “Africa,” sparked days of protest and renewed questions about the treatment of Skid Row’s residents.

New Options – More Things to Do

In recent years, the city has proposed new solutions.

In December 2017, after the No Place to Go report was released, the city opened a facility called ReFresh Spot. It is operated by the non-profit Homeless Healthcare Los Angeles and is funded by the Mayor’s Office. There are 7 toilets, 6 showers and 24 washers and dryers. This space has about 17,000 visits per month.

Stephanie Campos, executive director of ReFresh Spot, said in 2017 the team recommended at least “at least four or five sanitation centers throughout Skid Row.” But there is still only one.

A spokeswoman for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said his office was preparing another ReFresh Spot proposal when asked why the city didn’t add it. We take the health and well-being of those affected very seriously and are committed to leading the region in the deployment of public health resources in Skid Row and other high-impact areas,” said the deputy mayor. Jose “Che” Ramirez said. In a statement, for the city’s homeless initiative.

Skid Row tents in 2020 in the dark
The 2020 Skid Row tent. Photo: Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images

The Guardian also asked incoming Los Angeles mayor Karen Bass about her plans to address the issue. We are putting together a team to tackle the homelessness crisis head-on,” he said, but did not comment directly on Skid Row’s toilet crisis.

In addition to ReFresh Spot toilets, there are three APT locations, 10 portable toilets deployed by the United Homeless Response Center (down from 54 early in the pandemic), and 11 toilets. Midnight Mission (one of Skid Row’s ‘mega shelters’) – All open 24 hours.

A program called Pit Stop has placed paid “ambassadors” in the three APTs. These ambassadors are trained to manage Narcan, properly dispose of hazardous waste, and direct people to services. This, according to StreetsLA, was a more humane solution to keeping restrooms safe from illegal activity.

The need for more facilities remains high, but despite their continuing grievances, Hinode Toilet Drop participants are polite and even admire new bathrooms when they see them. People spend the morning hours when the busy 5th Avenue is closed. Some residents even frolic in the open streets, free from the fear of cars.

“Beautiful. Thank you guys. We love it,” says a woman who rolls past in her office chair.

The lack of permanent solutions presents an uncomfortable paradox. Investing in public infrastructure such as more toilets means acknowledging that more and more people are becoming homeless every day and it is getting worse.

“No one is ready to admit that Skid Row is here to stay,” says Callahan.

Garnett believes the city can easily solve the community toilet problem that has failed for decades.

“It helps,” he said, referring to the new bathroom. “But we’ll have to do research to find out: What’s the right solution? , one porta toilet [there] – What meets the needs of the community? And once you’ve done that, you’re done. “

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