Council to consider nighttime public toilets

Effort is aimed at providing place for homeless to use bathroom without compromising safety of community

Staff writerDecember 8, 2012 

At a time when people are relieving themselves on the side of the city’s 2-year-old City Hall, Councilwoman Jeannine Roe has a suggestion: Provide a public toilet that’s open all night.

Homeless and social service advocates have said that the reason why people have been doing their business in city alleys is that there’s no public restroom available in the overnight hours.

“After a certain time of night there’s nothing,” said Rob Richards, manager of the downtown ambassador program for Capital Recovery Center. “The library closes up. The IT center closes up.”

Roe suggested to the council last month that the council allocate $5,000 in the 2013 budget to pay for an unspecified nonprofit organization to maintain a public restroom.

“To me, it’s just kind of a no-brainer that we need to have a public restroom for people to use,” Roe said in an interview. “It’s an issue that isn’t going to go away.”

Other council members said the issue was worthy of more study, but that they weren’t in favor of providing public restrooms now.

“This is a really critical problem,” Mayor Stephen Buxbaum told the council. “It’s a big deal.”

But he said it’s a symptom of a larger problem — chronic inebriants — and the council is addressing that through a voluntary ban on the sale of high-volume alcohol drinks in part of downtown.

In recent years, the city has had portable toilets outside The Salvation Army, but those were closed due to unsavory activities.

Cities nationwide have struggled with balancing the need for public bathrooms with the reality that they attract illegal drug use and prostitution.

In 2008, Seattle removed five self-cleaning public toilets due to illegal behavior, according to The Seattle Times. The toilets cost $5 million.

Roe isn’t advocating a return to port-a-potties. She cited Portland’s six public toilets as a model. Called the Portland Loo, they are bare-bones toilets that are cleaned twice daily, according to the city’s website. The solar-powered bathrooms are placed in very public locations and have a graffiti-resistant material. There’s no sink or mirror; there’s a spigot on the outside for hand-washing.

They’re also not fully private; the toilets have ventilation into the open air that shows people’s legs and feet, so passersby can spot if there is more than one person in the facility.

An additional Portland Loo was exported to Victoria, B.C., where it was named the best restroom in Canada.

Richards said he knows from talking to business owners that people going to the bathroom in alleys is one of their biggest problems. City Manager Steve Hall, pushing for a camping ban outside City Hall on Tuesday, showed pictures of human urine and feces on the side of City Hall. The council didn’t pass the ban, but agreed to consider the wider homeless issues downtown. The topic is expected to return to the council at its next meeting Tuesday.

Richards said he doesn’t think portable toilets is the solution. But perhaps a security guard could be hired to monitor a public restroom after hours, he said.

“It’s also, I think, kind of low-hanging fruit,” he said.

Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869 mbatcheldor@ @MattBatcheldor

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