Public restrooms San Diego
Portable toilets have been placed in front of the County Administration Building in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In September, San Diego County officials declared a public health emergency as an outbreak of hepatitis A was spreading through what they dubbed “fecally contaminated environments.” The government response focused on three necessary areas – vaccination, sanitation and education — and it was the right one.

It’s now time that others — businesses as well as philanthropic organizations — step up and consider longer-term solutions to the city’s homeless population, starting with where these individuals go to the bathroom.

Voice of San Diego Commentary

The homeless population has increased over the past few years in my part of southeastern San Diego, especially in the commercial districts along Euclid Avenue at Market Street and Federal Boulevard. A number of these individuals may stay in shelters at night and during the day visit the Euclid Medical and Mental Health Clinic for their daily meds. Many of these individuals have EBT cards, which they use to purchase food at one of the fast food restaurants.

It is my understanding that only three of the many fast food restaurants in the area continue to allow non-customers to use the bathrooms. During the past month, three more businesses have placed locks on their bathrooms because the non-customer traffic became too heavy and the bathrooms were left in such a mess.

Because there are few public bathrooms in the area, it is becoming a common thing to see individuals relieving themselves against walls, bushes and cars. There are three porta-potties in the trolley stop area at Euclid and Market, but the toilets are padlocked and reserved for the bus drivers.

This is not just a southeastern San Diego issue, but one affecting anywhere people gather without toilets. I was in downtown Oakland a few weeks ago, and as I walked down the sidewalk the smell of urine was unpleasantly strong. It was offensive. This same foul odor can be found in a place that some call America’s Finest City.

I first noticed the problem this past month when my wife and I stopped to inspect a small bicycle leaning against a dumpster. I heard someone inside, so I said, “Hello in there.” A minute later, a dirty and scarred hand was gripping the edge of the dumpster, and a little man looked out. I told him I understood that he wanted to gather materials, but we couldn’t allow him to be in the dumpster because he could get hurt.

“I just need to finish going to the bathroom,” the man responded.

It’s hard to explain the emotions I felt — pain, pity, anger, sadness, shame at the failures of our society. But I also felt hopeful.

After some quick research, I found that porta-potties can be rented for as little as $70 per month, plus cleaning fees. What if there was a 25-cent charge to use them? What if churches or other organizations or even the city sponsored a new porta-potty?

I am aware that the city has sponsored a porta-potty before. The Portland Loo was placed at two intersections in the East Village and lead to complaints of increased crime. At Park Boulevard and Market Street, police received 50 more phone calls while the Loo was there. This should have been expected. Of course there would be an increase in stops with increased foot traffic.

Increased porta-potties is just one idea. The point is, we don’t have to be that creative when doing the right thing and providing our brothers and sisters with a little dignity. I speak from experience.

From 2007 until 2014, I managed the former 500 West Hotel downtown. Initially our policy was that the lobby bathrooms were for guests and patrons of the Grand Central Station, including a number of judges and lawyers who ate there on a daily basis.

We learned in a short time, however, that by keeping non-guests out of the bathrooms, they were forced to take care of their business elsewhere — and it was frequently on the grounds of the hotel. Instead, the property management company opened back up the bathrooms and hired extra help to make sure the facilities stayed presentable.

I also talked with many of the homeless individuals who used the bathrooms daily and warned them that if the facilities were left in a mess, we would change our policy again. From that time forward, many of the homeless individuals made sure the counters were wiped and no trash left on the floor before they departed.

Have you ever been denied access to use a restroom or been in a situation where there were no restrooms? What would you do?

Tom Cartwright is a native San Diegan and former hotel manager. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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