by Steve Pleich
Some years ago, San Diego County partnered with local nonprofits to provide “basic dignity” to people experiencing homelessness in the form of increased access to bathroom facilities. It has long been the hope of homeless advocates in Santa Cruz that such an idea could find some traction in a community where this need is so great.
Indeed, in Santa Cruz, the situation is dire and reflects a generalized and pervasive bias against the homeless community. For the unhoused in Santa Cruz, the simple act of relieving themselves without public restroom access is just one more instance of having to sacrifice their basic dignity as human beings just to survive.
As Housing NOW Santa Cruz founding member Linda Lemaster said, “It is bad enough that homeless people are criminalized in our community. Do we really have to humiliate them as well?”
Santa Cruz does have some history of city-sponsored programs to increase downtown bathroom access. A Bathroom Task Force was formed in 1999 with some support from the City Council which set up “temporary” porta-potties in the downtown area.
HUFF (Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom) founder Robert Norse recalled this effort and the reasons for its demise. “Whatever promise this program had in making bathroom facilities more available to the homeless community was eventually beaten back and ultimately beaten down with ‘vandalism’ mythology,” Norse said.
“The bathrooms are long gone but the mythology lingers and continues to generate substantial resistance to progress, even in the form of simply revisiting the idea.”
The proposal currently being recommended to the City Council would involve a public/private partnership between “Basic Dignity Campaign Santa Cruz” and the City. It is worth noting that this type of collaborative effort has successfully worked in Santa Cruz to reopen public facilities that have had their hours reduced or have been closed completely due to lack of funding.
The fiscal reality is that that there are many demands on the city’s budget and other city services and programs occupy higher budgetary priorities. But Rabbi Phil Posner, whose “Camp of Last Resort” program is challenging the city to create safe sleeping spaces for people experiencing homelessness, holds out some hope.
“Discussion and consideration of this proposal may pave the way for a realistic approach to this pressing need,” Rabbi Posner said. “And additional bathroom facilities in the downtown area could benefit the entire community, not just those people experiencing homelessness. Additional bathroom facilities along the San Lorenzo Riverway could support both our camp proposal and the ongoing program to revitalize that area of the city.”
Funding for this program would be secured through private contributions and donations. No public funds would be used for the purchase or rental of portable or semi-permanent bathroom units. Depending on the amount of money raised, these units could range from the basic “porta-pottie” to full-service bathroom facilities like the “Portland Loo” produced by Madden Fabrication.
The Portland Loos are simple, sturdy, flush toilet kiosks, which provide environmentally friendly, clean, and safe restroom facilities. This is the ideal solution if we truly want to accord people experiencing homelessness not only basic dignity, but also a sense of belonging to a compassionate community that understands their daily challenges.
The City’s participation would take the form of installation and maintenance of the new facilities through Public Works and oversight by the Parks and Recreation Department and the Santa Cruz Police Department, depending on placement.
Of course, any program such as this will require much thought, planning and public process. But homeless advocates and even some civic leaders believe this is an ideal time for consideration of the idea of “basic dignity.”
Santa Cruz City Councilmember Micah Posner was instrumental in the placement of the only 24-hour-access restroom in the downtown area. Aptly nicknamed the “Posner Pottie,” this first-of-its-kind facility could serve as a community icebreaker on the issue.
Posner’s father, Rabbi Phil, echoed the sentiments of many when he said, “We have to do better — better for people experiencing homelessness, better for our community, better for ourselves. Let’s hope that now is the time for basic dignity, an idea whose time has surely come.”
Steve Pleich is an advocate for people experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz.