San Diego's Homeless Are Struggling To Find Open Public Bathrooms
San Diego’s East Village has 1,100 homeless people sleeping outside on the street, but fewer than a dozen public toilets. And even those toilets sometimes have issues.
Currently, there are two toilets — one for men and one for women, plus three urinals — open at the Neil Good Day Center, a homeless service center paid for in part by the city. But they're only open from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays and 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends.
The women’s toilet is rarely available, Rita Curry said. She's one of the 160 homeless people who live in tents along 17th street, according to a July homeless count.
"Most of them go in the bushes because there is no port-a-potties around here," Curry said. "The ladies have one toilet, one sink. They boarded up the shower."
The next closest public bathrooms are down the street and around the corner at the homeless shelter St. Vincent de Paul Village on Imperial Avenue. There, two men's toilets and three urinals, plus five women's toilets, are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week — except when they’re clogged and closed for repairs, which was the case when KPBS visited earlier this week.
Ruth Bruland, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Village, said the problem that time stemmed from nearby construction.
"Other times, individuals will sometimes use the toilets to put shoes, clothing, and so we do have to unstick those things," Bruland said. "This is a challenging population to provide restrooms for. They need them, we want to do it, but it is never dull."
There used to be another public bathroom, a Portland Loo, at the intersection of 14th and L streets. The city paid $560,000 to install it and another loo at Park Boulevard and Market Street.
But early this year, the city spent another $60,000 to remove the 14th and L loo because of complaints of increased crime. To fill the toilet void, the city agreed to pay St. Vincent more than $80,000 a year to open its bathrooms all day and night. But homeless who use the bathrooms say they are often closed for repairs.
"They've been closed off and on with 2 inches of sewage water in the bathroom and they're just not taking care of it," said Josh Gonzalez, who sleeps on the street and comes to St. Vincent de Paul Village every morning to shave and wash up. "They'll take care of it, but an hour later it's closed again."
"If you don't have no shower shoes, your feet might fall off," said Lamuel Kimbrough, who became homeless a year ago after being charged with a felony. "They never have any toilet paper, there's always a puddle in the middle of the bathroom, there's always dudes in there like shootin' up and everything."
A city spokesman said in a statement that the city pays St. Vincent de Paul Village for the bathrooms to make up for the Portland Loo that was removed.
"Instead of one Loo, the city got several more public stalls added that are permanent and monitored/secure," the statement said. "We understand that maintenance is an ongoing issue at these facilities. The restrooms are regularly serviced and cleaned every two hours."
Neighbors of the other Portland Loo at Park Boulevard and Market Street are now complaining that it, too, attracts crime.
The number of calls to San Diego Police have increased at the intersections where both loos were installed, but not the number of arrests. There were no arrests for assault, prostitution, robbery, or sexual assault at either loo location in the six months after they were installed. There were five drug arrests at the two locations in those same six months.
The city spokesman said there are currently no plans to remove the loo at Park Boulevard and Market Street, and said there are several other public bathrooms downtown. But most are not in close proximity to the East Village, where many of the homeless live.
Tammy Whitt, who’s been homeless for five years, said she used to make the trek to find a bathroom. Now she uses a 5-gallon bucket.
"Where do we put it? Usually we just dump it in the trash," Whitt said. "I hate to say it like that. It sounds nasty, but where else are we supposed to put it?"