We have talked about the inordinate amount of time, energy, and financial resources that are spent on preventing benches from being slept on, or even sat on by people experiencing homelessness. The same brand of madness goes on over public bathrooms. The object is to make the homeless disappear by not providing any public toilets. Now, nobody can find a place to take a leak, and don’t even think about the other thing.
Someone with money can spend a few bucks in a store or restaurant, thus earning the right to perform natural functions in their facilities. Someone without money can hold it till they get home. Someone without a home can pee in an alley. What a brilliant solution — not! This is a lose-lose-lose outcome for everybody except business owners, who pick up some extra revenue by capitalizing on an unavoidable human need.
There is a terrific organization called STREATS — that stands for “Homeless Individuals Striving To Reach Educate And Transform Society’s Views on Homelessness.” Its media division has produced a video called “Gotta Go.” About half-an-hour long, it contains lively commentary with some humor from some very articulate people on the subject of going to the bathroom.
We have talked about the ongoing conflict between housed residents and “rubber tramps” in Venice, California. Last fall, for instance, two people were arrested for dumping human waste from a camper toilet into the street. The prosecution wanted to put them in jail for 90 days, but the judge has ordered a 36-months probation, to pay restitution, and to get the heck out of Venice.
There is reportedly a legal RV waste disposal facility 7.7 miles away from the area where the Venetian vehicle dwellers tend to cluster, and it costs $10, which sounds reasonable. But there might be many reasons why people living in a parked RV could not or would not vacate the space they had claimed. It’s a tough problem.
In a newsletter, a local citizen gloated over the fate of another pair of miscreants, a couple with a nine-year-old child. They too were charged with dumping waste in the street, and their RV was seized as evidence and towed to an impound yard many miles away in the San Fernando Valley to await a release from the police. The citizen says, “Beautiful evening for a walk to the SFV.”
This is from Dana Goodyear’s “Street Scene” column in The New Yorker, a while back, reporting on the Skid Row area of Los Angeles:
Plastic outhouses were removed because people were using them for sex and drugs and deals, and now there are several self-cleaning, European-style public toilets whose doors automatically open after an interval.
This controversy carried quite a history, as shown by a piece written by Penelope McMillan 20 years earlier, about a particular settlement known as the “Love Camp,” with a distinctly different reputation than those of other Skid Row encampments of the time. The journalist wrote,
Its residents, numbering around 50, rotate cooking, cleaning and security duties and share the $70-a-month rental cost of the portable toilets.
What portable toilets? The ones that were a symbol to the camp’s inhabitants that they would not sink beyond a certain level, and would indeed rise again to take their places in society. The portable toilets that were snatched, one day at dawn, by a city work crew. On the same day, the camp’s leadership kept an appointment with city officials to supposedly arrange a “model cleanup,” to be used as a prototype for future sweeps meant to clear out the homeless population. Strange that the city’s idea of a “cleanup” should begin with stealing the toilets.
Just last week, Kathleen Edgecomb reported from New London, Connecticut, about the shutting off of a new fountain on a downtown plaza because people experiencing homelessness used it to clean themselves. Actually, the last straw was when a passing cop discovered an intoxicated man washing solid matter out of his pants. The homeless were accused of using the whole area as an outdoor toilet. The reporter quotes Cathy Zall, director of a 50-bed shelter, who reminds us that being homeless is not a crime, and that the majority of the problems are caused by a very small minority.
In Eugene, Oregon, there are a few areas where a tiny fraction of the people who live in vehicles can safely park, and the city provides portable toilets and garbage collection. Apparently, some cities did get a clue, to some extent. It’s not rocket science. In fact, humankind has figured out how astronauts can go to the bathroom in zero gravity, for Pete’s sake. Surely we can think of ways for people to go to the bathroom in a modern city.
In Austin, Texas, an online commentator complains that the hundred or so people who are turned away from the ARCH shelter every night tend to hang around the neighborhood and relieve themselves in streets and alleys, and that Waller Creek is called a “giant alky toilet.”
It’s a strange situation. The city apparently paid a design firm a million and a half dollars to create a plan for renovating the creek and the downtown area surrounding it. Then it ditched the plan and is currently looking for another.
Here’s a thought. Whatever money there is for the new plan, take half of that and hire a student instead. (That’s what homeless people do to get their teeth fixed — let students practice on them.) Then take the other half and build some freakin’ restrooms. There you go — problem solved.
Source: “Venice RV Dumpers Sentenced,” 100kissfm.com, 10/13/10
Source: “Street Scene ,” The New Yorker, 05/05/08
Source: “Skid Row Camp’s Portable Toilets Swept Away,” LA Times, 03/11/87
Source: “Fountain incident puts spotlight on homeless issue,” The Day, 06/08/11
Source: “Will the Waller Creek Development be the death of Red River music scene?,” Yelp, 10/24/09
Source: “Private conservancy outlines plan to rescue, revive Waller Creek,” Statesman.com, 04/27/11
Screen capture of Public Toilet in Skid Row, Los Angeles, California, used under Fair Use: Reporting.
It’s hard to tell when this National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) page was last updated. But it’s safe to assume that the overall situation has not improved, since whenever. The NCH page, entitled “The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” says,
An unfortunate trend in cities around the country over the past 25 years has been to turn to the criminal justice system to respond to people living in public spaces. This trend includes measures that target homeless persons by making it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public. These measures prohibit activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and begging in public spaces, usually including criminal penalties for violation of these laws.
Last week in Boulder, Colorado, a homeless man who was ticketed last April for sleeping in a parking garage, attempted to use an Eighth Amendment defense against the charge. That’s the one about cruel and unusual punishment. Once convicted, Michael Fitzgerald was supposed to either pay a $100 fine or do 12 hours of community service. Instead… well, let Heath Urie, staff writer for the Boulder Daily Camera, tell the story:
Fitzgerald appealed the case to the Boulder County District Court on the grounds that the city’s law against camping in public places essentially punished him for being homeless and having an involuntary need for warmth and shelter as he sleeps at night.
Yes, it looks like the rule he broke is not only cruel and unusual, but discriminatory. However, unfair as it is from the viewpoint of a person experiencing homelessness, so-called respectable society disagrees. Urie reports how Judge Lael Montgomery expressed a strangely familiar sentiment, saying,
The camping without consent ordinance applies to all persons who wish to camp in Boulder, regardless of whether they are homeless, shoestring travelers trying to avoid the cost of accommodations, or persons who merely enjoy the great outdoors.
Nobel Prize-winning author Anatole France said it decades ago:
The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to beg in the streets, steal bread, or sleep under a bridge.
Attorney David Harrison, no doubt familiar with the classical allusion, echoed it in his argument about the city’s ordinance:
It’s certainly saying people with homes and people without homes can’t sleep under bridges… While certainly as a conceptual matter that’s true, as a practical matter (the law) targets the homeless population.
The journalist tell us that Fitzgerald is one of several local people experiencing homelessness who have challenged the tickets they’re received, on constitutional grounds. Boulder is like that. He also provides a helpful sidebar on the page, detailing the No Camping Ordinance, which has been in effect since 1980.
Recently, we talked about how in Austin, Texas, House the Homeless kept track of how many people were busted for sitting or lying down on public sidewalks in the downtown business area during 2009. Over the whole year, there were 708 convictions and 70 dismissals. The highest month was September, when 518 citations were issued. (The month-by-month count for the entire year adds up to way more than 778, so presumably, some legal processes were still going on when this survey was made.)
Anyhow, out of those mere 70 dismissals, only a paltry 52 were dismissed for mental health or medical disabilities. Statistically, what that means is, a lot of people were unfairly treated. Here’s why: In the health survey, 501 people were asked whether they needed to sit and rest now and then. The large majority answered yes. Even people who aren’t officially disabled need to sit down, occasionally. Think about it. Homes are filled with chairs. If people didn’t need them, they wouldn’t be there. People experiencing homelessness don’t have chairs. But they too need a place to sit.
(To be continued…)
Source: “A Dream Denied,” National Coalition for the Homeless
Source: “Boulder judge rejects homeless man’s appeal, upholds city’s anti-camping law,” Daily Camera, 04/08/11
Source: “Richard Troxell’s Health Survey Testimony,” House the Homeless, 07/20/10
Image by tobyotter (Toby Alter), used under its Creative Commons license.