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Access To Bathrooms Harder To Find For Downtown Homeless

A man waits to use a portable toilet located on 16th Street in San Diego's East Village neighborhood, June 11, 2019.
Susan Murphy
A man waits to use a portable toilet located on 16th Street in San Diego's East Village neighborhood, June 11, 2019.

The number of homeless people sleeping in parks and on sidewalks in and around downtown San Diego is nearly the same as it was two years ago, according to a count conducted by the Downtown San Diego Partnership.

The latest monthly count in May found 860 unsheltered men, women and children, compared to 892 in May 2016. The difference now is makeshift camps are no longer tolerated, and sidewalks are regularly power-washed.

Access To Bathrooms Harder To Find For Downtown Homeless
By Reporter Susan Murphy

One thing that hasn’t changed much, according to people sleeping on the streets, is access to public bathrooms, especially at night.

“There are very few places for us to use the restroom out here,” said Ramona Garcia, who has lived on the streets on and off for four years.

“You know, most of us don’t want to use outside, but sometimes we have to. We have to go to the bathroom somewhere,” she said.

Video: San Diego Homeless Women Share Their Struggle To Find A Toilet

The city of San Diego deployed 16 additional port-a-potties to downtown streets during the hepatitis A outbreak, which killed 20 people and sickened nearly 600 starting in 2016. But many of the toilets have since been removed.

A city spokesperson said some toilets were taken away when the bridge shelters went up.

The few that remain carry a hefty price tag. According to a city spokesperson, the cost to operate three side-by-side port-a-potties located at 101 16th Street in the East Village is $29,000 per month. They are not connected to the sewer, and there is no running water. The bulk of the cost comes from 24-hour security and a portable solar-powered light, according to city officials.

One of the toilets remains locked and is only used by security guards, including Jonathan Betancourt, who provides security at the site during the day, with a gun in his holster.

Betancourt said more than 100 people use the toilets each day, most are homeless.

“They do carry knives, needles, stuff like that so I also have pepper spray,” Betancourt said. “If someone tries to physically attack me there’s always steps of de-escalation but I usually just try to talk to them like humans and that works most of the time.”

He said the toilets are cleaned every day and restocked with toilet paper twice a day. He said there is often a line of people waiting.

“It’s inhumane to have somebody hold their urine for so long,” said Ashley Donaldson, who said she became homeless four weeks ago and has had to go to the bathroom in the bushes on several occasions.

“I had multiple accidents due to it, lost a lot of clothing because of it,” Donaldson said. “I have overactive bladder syndrome so the big thing is, if I don’t find a bathroom within a certain amount of time, I can’t hold it.”

Kathleen Wolfe, who has been homeless for more than a decade, said not much has changed.

“You know, the only place to go is St. Vincent’s or the port-a-potties, which is hard to find,” Wolfe said. “It’s hard to find a bathroom.”

Homeless advocate Michael McConnell said the conditions continue to be a health hazard.

“The bridge shelters filled up and now the streets are back to filling up also,” McConnell said. “So it’s only a matter of time until we deploy the proper kinds of resources, the coordination to actually get folks off the street that will eliminate that risk.”

"We’re not that far behind San Francisco and Los Angeles," he warned. "We could be there very very quickly if we don’t get on this and create a sense of urgency to deal with it."

Two local women share their journey in the growing trend of setting up shared office space. Plus, finding a place to go to the bathroom isn’t something most of us think about. But for people who are homeless, that task is getting more complicated as bathrooms are becoming harder to find. And, the city council has approved a 12-month expansion program called “bridge shelters,” to help those transitioning from being homeless to permanent housing.