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A thoroughly reported story by Bella Ross that Voice of San Diego published Nov. 23 detailed the lack of ready access to public bathrooms for the 1,000-plus homeless residents and the public in general in the Downtown area. Ross, who is the newest member of The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board, noted the frustration of just about all involved — unsheltered people, their advocates and local business owners — over the quality of life and public health issues that the lack of bathroom access creates because of the abundance of human waste on sidewalks, roads and parking areas and in parks.
This waste is suspected to be responsible for at least 38 cases of shigella reported among the unsheltered population in recent weeks. The cases brought back horrible memories of the local hepatitis A outbreak in 2017-18 that was centered Downtown and killed 20 people and sickened 592.
Perhaps that is why a statement from Mayor Todd Gloria in the story struck such a chord. “The goal here isn’t to add as many permanent public bathrooms as possible,” he said. “The goal is to help get unsheltered residents off the streets and into safe, sanitary shelter and permanent housing.”
Such long-term solutions are in fact vital instead of focusing on what may prove to be short-term issues. Gloria was criticized for not appreciating the urgency of the problem posed by a lack of bathroom access. Then Gloria adviser Dave Rolland pushed back on Twitter and said the mayor appreciates the problem and is working to comprehensively address homelessness. Now bathrooms are being added.
In an interview with two editorial board members, several Gloria aides detailed what was being done, and one stressed, “We hear the concern about needing more public restrooms.” They outlined a data-driven approach to determining the best places to locate both permanent and portable bathrooms and said they were making progress toward the goal of having an accessible bathroom within a five-minute walk of everyone in the Downtown area. One said about 65 percent to 70 percent of the unsheltered residents now have such access because of 26 public bathrooms. Gloria’s aides said they expect the number to be 100 percent within weeks.
If that comes to pass, that would indeed be progress. The fecal filth on city streets won’t just go away. The City Council is already spending more than $1 million a year to clean its sidewalks. And while some residents have ambulatory issues and would find a five-minute walk difficult or impossible, many residents would welcome public restroom access.
If this goal is achieved, problems would of course remain. Gloria’s aides noted that public bathrooms and hand-washing stations address public health concerns. But they said that on a daily basis, they get complaints and pressure from adjacent business owners who view the facilities as attracting homeless people who remain nearby, leading the public to avoid the immediate area. These business owners want homeless residents to not be loitering or living close. They don’t want the issue to be managed.
And one problem is unresolvable: “The city has finite resources and many needs,” one official said. “Budgets reflect public priorities.” With limited finances, any local government that has to balance its budget — and can’t print money like the federal government — will wind up with many groups who are unsatisfied with the decisions of local leaders.
But, as a professor told Ross for her report, public restrooms are as important for pedestrians as public rest stops are for motorists on interstate highways. Four separate grand juries over two decades have warned that the city’s woeful public restroom access could fuel a public health threat. We’ve now had two preventable outbreaks in four years. It’s time to act.