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Public restrooms in an East Village park have been mostly locked for months, even while a hepatitis A outbreak fueled in part by lacking hygiene has plagued homeless San Diegans.
Pinnacle International developed two high-rises bordering Fault Line Park, agreeing years ago to build and maintain the park and restrooms in exchange for perks including the right to build more apartments in the towers and a garage underneath the park.
The restrooms have been a problem since they opened, as inewsource reported last year. Homeless people have settled at the edge of the park, and city officials, Pinnacle staff and owners of the restaurant that houses the bathrooms have described near-constant safety hazards, including a stabbing that some restaurant workers witnessed.
“They basically got used all the time for drug use and prostitution and crime,” said John Long, whose restaurant Stella Public House oversees the restrooms for the developer.
Long, the city and the developer said they decided last fall to ensure safety by locking the restroom doors and requiring visitors to walk into the restaurant to get a key. The restaurant had previously just kept them closed.
In the months since, homeless people who visit or regularly settle at Fault Line Park say they’ve gotten the message the restrooms still aren’t open to them. The number of people gathering at the park between J Street and Island Avenue has grown, and more homeless children spend time there. One afternoon last month, several young children roamed or sat with their parents, belongings in tow, paces away from the locked restrooms.
Meanwhile, a countywide hepatitis A outbreak has exploded. Nearly a dozen people have died and more than 230 have been hospitalized, many of them homeless. It’s the biggest hepatitis A outbreak in the state in 20 years.
Public health officials say the virus is passed through person-to-person contact, and basic hygiene could help mitigate further spreading. The county’s encouraged those who might be at risk to take extra care to wash their hands before eating or after using the bathroom – seemingly simple tips that can be more difficult for homeless people without easy access to restrooms.
Two homeless mothers who regularly visit the park with their infants told VOSD they’ve assumed the restrooms are closed. There aren’t signs to let them know they are open to those who ask for a key.
“It seems like they don’t care,” said Alexis Leftridge, who has an infant son and now spends her nights at nearby Father Joe’s Villages.
The other young mother, whose 2-year-old and infant sons were with her at the park earlier this month, also expressed frustration. She admitted, eyes widening, that she hadn’t been aware of the hepatitis A outbreak until I told her about it and planned to double-check that her older son had received the hepatitis A vaccine. She asked that I not share her name to protect her privacy.
Her biggest concern, she said, was where she could find a clean restroom or take her sons to wash their hands.
After VOSD asked about the bathroom policy, city spokeswoman Katie Keach said city workers would install temporary signage at the Fault Line bathroom next week to clarify that visitors can access the bathrooms if they get a key from the restaurant. Permanent signs will go up in about a month, Keach said.
“The key system works to ensure those using the restroom must check in with someone,” Keach wrote in an email. “While we understand that it may seem like a hurdle to use the restroom, this extra step can deter those who use the restroom for illicit activities which have been problematic at this public bathroom.”
But Danielle, a 33-year-old who lived at Fault Line Park until she was hospitalized with hepatitis A more than a month ago, said she and others have asked for the key in recent months only to be told the restrooms are closed.
“They say it before you can get the sentence out and they won’t let you use the (other bathroom) inside unless you’re a paying customer and it doesn’t count if you buy a soda,” said Danielle, who asked that I not print her last name to protect her privacy.
Keach said the city would follow up with Stella Public House, which has taken on the management of the bathrooms, to ensure workers provide restroom keys to those who ask to use the bathroom.
“The goal is to have a public restroom for all,” Keach said. “There may be times when the key is refused if the individual poses a threat to threat to health and safety; at those times (the San Diego Police Department) is contacted.”
Long, the Stella Public House co-owner, said he would also clarify that protocol with restaurant staff.
Dennis La Salle, the San Diego-based development manager for Pinnacle International, did not return calls and emails from VOSD.
Danielle doesn’t believe she contracted hepatitis A because of curtailed bathroom access at Fault Line Park. She said she regularly used hand wipes, a tool public health experts have noted isn’t as effective as hand-washing, and other restrooms in the area.
But state and county health officials have said hepatitis A – which is marked by flu-like symptoms, jaundice and nausea – has predominantly been spread in San Diego County through ingestion of fecal matter from those who already have the virus. Homeless people, who often lack easy access to restrooms, can face particular hygiene challenges that make them more susceptible to the virus.
“Unfortunately, because hepatitis A is transmitted by the fecal-oral route and homeless people do not typically have ready access to clean toilets and hand-washing facilities, there is likely to be more person-to-person transmission than outbreaks in other populations with better access to these types of facilities,” a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Health wrote in a statement. Kathleen Harriman, an epidemiologist with the department, said she’s regularly been in touch with San Diego officials.
Danielle and others who have stayed at Fault Line Park were more concerned with the daily impacts of the locked bathrooms. Many criticized the city for not enforcing the developer’s contract with Civic San Diego that requires the developer to operate the bathrooms.
Homeless people in the area instead rely on restrooms at the Central Library and a nearby grocery store that are open during the day. When necessary, they’ll venture to facilities at Park Boulevard and Market Street and Father Joe’s Villages, which they describe as dirtier and busier.
But they say the lack of easy bathroom access can be problematic and sometimes even painful.
Some describe waiting for hours for a clean, open bathroom where they can relieve themselves, trying to hide in the bushes when they can’t wait or walk any longer, or urinating in large gas station to-go cups in the middle of the night.
Danielle and her friend Debbie, a 60-year-old woman with irritable bowel syndrome, recalled an accident the she had a few months ago when a nearby grocery store restroom was closed.
Debbie soiled her clothes. She was mortified.
Danielle said she reluctantly approached Stella Public House and asked if they’d let her friend clean up in their restroom.
Danielle said restaurant staff initially said that the bathrooms were closed.
“I had to almost beg them, ‘This isn’t a joke. She seriously needs to use the restrooms,’” Danielle recalled. “They’re sitting there, just locked.”
Eventually, she said, a restaurant worker let the two women into one of the public restrooms to get cleaned up.