41,000 People Unsheltered. 182 Portable Toilets. It's Time To Get Serious About Street Hygiene
“Don’t come over here, I’m taking a s---!” is what I heard when I recently approached two unhoused women in downtown Los Angeles.
On this particularly warm afternoon, one woman was crouched behind the door of a Toyota with fading red paint. I thought she and her friend, Analli Brown, were talking while she sat on the curb, but Brown was playing lookout while her friend defecated in a bucket.
The woman sitting on the bucket was in no mood to talk, but Brown, 42 years old and unhoused for three years, motioned for me to follow her a few steps away — but still close enough where she could keep an eye out for her friend. I asked Brown about the missing Mobile Pit Stop unit that, according to the city, was supposed to be on her street. The units, which have attendants, provide the chance to use the toilet and clean up. They're also staffed to provide additional social services.
As a woman, it is very humiliating to have to take a dump in a bucket behind the place where you stay or behind your vehicle.
“They’ve taken the bathrooms away, we’ve all had to use buckets,” she said. “Ladies from a nonprofit organization came out with some buckets and toilet seat covers ... and basically, they passed them all up and down the street so that we would have someplace to put the waste.”
Brown, who grew up in South Central, said there used to be a pit stop on 15th Street where she sleeps, but said one day they were just “up and gone,” which caused “chaos” that left people scrambling to find a place to use the bathroom. Brown said they later discovered the mobile pit stop was moved around the corner to 16th Street, but she said it disappeared from there after three months without warning.
“As a woman it is very humiliating to have to take a dump in a bucket behind the place where you stay or behind your vehicle,” she said. “Everybody deserves to have that privacy. And I don’t understand, they never gave us a reason why they took that from us, they never gave us an explanation.”
The pit stop unit was eventually relocated again — a 20-minute walk away from where Brown sleeps — after the Department of Public Works received a request from the Los Angeles Unified School District to have it moved away from a bus yard.
“As the school year starts, we will have even more vehicles and staff entering and leaving the yard throughout the day and evening,” a LAUSD spokesperson wrote in an email. “We felt that this posed an unnecessary risk to our unhoused neighbors and our employees operating large vehicles.”
In recent months, temporary porta potties supplied by the city of Los Angeles were removed from the streets, but an investigation by L.A. Taco about the contract not being renewed, and the hygiene stations’ poor upkeep, led to backlash from community members and organizations that serve the unhoused population. The city council voted recently to bring 150 temporary hygiene stations back until the end of the year. There were originally 363 hand washing stations and 182 portable toilets around the city.
Those hygiene stations, overseen by the city's General Services Department as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, shouldn’t be confused with mobile pit stops, which fall under the Dept. of Public Works.
What’s A Mobile Pit Stop?
The current Mobile Pit Stop Program evolved from a 2018 pilot program by the city council in response to a Hepatitis A outbreak in Los Angeles County, and it soon expanded locations. There are currently 19 mobile pit stops in Los Angeles, all staffed with attendants, most of which are open for 12 hours per day, seven days a week, according to Elena Stern, senior public information director for the city’s Department of Public Works. Three locations are open 24 hours. The city’s chief administrative officer used data from the Department of Public Health and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to determine where bathrooms were needed.
There are two types of mobile pit stops: some are covered with green metal and are at fixed locations; the others resemble larger porta potties and are picked up every night.
The major difference between temporary hygiene stations and mobile pit stops is that the pit stops are staffed by “practitioners” hired by the nonprofit, Urban Alchemy. In addition to keeping the facilities clean, practitioners are given training on de-escalation, sexual harassment and managing stress, along with workforce development skills. The practitioners also monitor how many people are using the toilets and are responsible for outreach to make sure the local communities surrounding each pit stop know about the location and hours, according to the city.
The hygiene stations brought in at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic were never meant to be a long-term solution to address the needs of the unhoused population, according to Harrison Wollman, press secretary for Mayor Garcetti. Wollman said the contract for mobile pit stops was recently renewed and the mayor’s office is working with the city’s chief administrative officer and the city council to explore funding for more of those facilities.
“The units are incredibly popular with users and the communities in which they are placed,” Wollman said. “We’ve heard firsthand that they bring comfort and dignity back into the lives of people experiencing homelessness ... and we have begun conversations with our nonprofit partners about developing the capacity to expand the program.”
I think a lot of times people don't really realize how important toilets are until you don't have one.
Lena Miller, chief executive officer of Urban Alchemy, confirmed the organization is in talks with the city about expanding the program to include more permanent toilets.
“I think a lot of times people don't really realize how important toilets are until you don't have one,” Miller said. “And even if people have buckets, or jars, or whatever, what happens then?”
Brown, the unhoused woman who uses a bucket, would like to see that expansion because she knows what happens: human waste ends up on the sidewalk.
“We all know there are a lot of mentally ill people on the street who are just taking dumps, wherever they please, and it’s making it harder for everybody to clean up,” Brown said. “The city comes to clean the street ...if [waste is] not in a bag, they will not pick it up ... We let each other know that if you need a bucket, here's a bucket, don't leave it on the floor, don't leave it on the sidewalk, because its gonna stay there.”
Georgia, another unhoused woman in downtown Los Angeles who declined to give her last name, said she would also like to see that expansion. She is reluctant to use portable toilets after an unhoused man walked into the porta potty she was using and would not leave. She now goes to the Downtown Women’s shelter, a 22-minute round-trip walk from her tent.
‘Put One On Every Corner.’
I spoke with a dozen unhoused people who all said the same thing: permanent toilet locations with attendants are better than unattended temporary hygiene stations, citing safety and cleanliness as the biggest reasons for their support.
Jesus Gonzales, an unhoused man who lives in downtown Los Angeles, said it’s more than about having a safe, clean place to use the bathroom. He said it shows the city in a good light and makes him proud to be a native Angeleno.
“They should put more of the [pit stops],” he said. “They should be on every corner.”
If mobile pit stops appeared on every corner, they would come with practitioners, who are part of the appeal for many unhoused people. Many of the practitioners who work the mobile pit stops are also formerly incarcerated or unhoused and trying to get back on their feet to make a better life for themselves.
Jay Flott started as a practitioner for the overnight shift on Skid Row in April. He said he initially did it because he needed work, but has since established relationships with the people who live in the area.
“I never knew what Skid Row was like firsthand,” he said. “Now that I’m out here, I see there’s a lot of people who need help. I feel like I'm providing a small service by doing this job.”
Mario Estrada, who works at a mobile pit stop near the 101 freeway, said he also took the job to serve his community.
There's a lot of people who need help, especially homeless, mentally ill, and people that can't take care of themselves who need these facilities to feel like a human being.
“There's a lot of people who need help, especially homeless, mentally ill, and people that can't take care of themselves who need these facilities to feel like a human being,” he said. “Not having to feel like an animal being in the streets, because as they say, if you treat a person as an animal, that’s what they’re gonna act like.”
Estrada said he was surprised by how many people who are housed also use the pit stop.
“People literally get off the freeway, park and use them ... people who jog, take long walks, or ride their bike,” he said, adding people won’t need to urinate or defecate in public if they know there’s a restroom close by.
A similar pit stop program already exists in San Francisco. As of June, there are 25 pit stop locations there, plus an additional 11 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to San Francisco Public Works. The annual cost to operate one location in San Francisco for 12 hours per day, seven days a week, ranges from $244,000- $373,000, depending on the type of unit. The estimates do not include supplies, materials or replacement costs.
Rachel Gordon, the director of policy and communications for San Francisco Public Works, said the city oversees the overall program and has agreements with local nonprofits for staffing needs. The program, which has widespread support from the mayor and all 11 members of their Board of Supervisors, along with the hospitality industry and neighborhood merchants, has steadily expanded since it started in 2014 and now operates more locations than Los Angeles.
“The public toilets are used by a diversity of folks — the unhoused, tourists, families with young kids, Uber/Lyft drivers, farmers market vendors, folks working in the field without a fixed office and many others,” Gordon said.
Los Angeles, by comparison, has 19 pit stops currently in use, 11 of which can be easily relocated if needed. The total budget for the mobile pit stop program this year is roughly $7 million, which means the annual cost to operate one pit stop location is about $368,000. This cost includes, in part, paying Urban Alchemy to oversee operations, and United Site Services for daily pick-up and delivery at temporary locations, according to Stern from the Department of Public Works.
Miller, the CEO of Urban Alchemy, said the city reached out to ask if her organization would be interested in offering its services to L.A. after its success in San Francisco. She said at the time, San Francisco was “world renowned” for having human feces in the street.
“It was a regular thing you used to see, but not so much anymore because they added so many pit stops,” she said.
No Money. More Problems.
Complaints about the cost of mobile pit stops are not exclusive to Los Angeles. Miller said there were initially complaints from city officials in San Francisco about the cost when the program started there, but there were also just as many headlines about the city losing millions in tourism and convention revenue.
Tourism is a big part of the Los Angeles economy. But in 2020, NBC Los Angeles reported visitors to the city called it “filthy” and “disgusting.” The station’s reporting also found that lack of tourism is “costing businesses millions” due to canceled vacations.
Then there’s the Los Angeles City Council. Council member Paul Krekorian, whose district represents neighborhoods including North Hollywood, Studio City and Van Nuys, told the LA Times in 2019 the city had to find a cheaper solution for restrooms. Krekorian wondered how many single-family homes could be built with the amount of money required for operating mobile pit stops. (Krekorian recently declined an opportunity to address whether his stance has changed.)
But during a discussion last month about the new anti-camping ordinance on KPCC's AirTalk, council member Mark Ridley-Thomas told Larry Mantle that permanent housing “is a years-long process.”
Ridley-Thomas said he believes the argument for mobile pit stops would have more consensus and support from the city council if it's framed as a public health and sanitation issue, instead of something needed for the public good.
“I think we get further with that in terms of building consensus for the implementation and funding of the policy,” he said.
Ridley-Thomas said the council’s energy is focused on the houseless population, and if public toilets are meant to also accommodate housed people, it could end up being cost prohibitive.
“It’s a balancing act in respect to finite resources,” he said, adding that the chief administrative officer for the city was recently asked to come up with a long-term hygiene plan within 90 days, and that increasing the number of mobile pit stops could be part of that plan.
How much money does it cost for all these public amenities that aren’t geared toward homeless people that have a huge city cost that no one talks about?
Urban Alchemy’s Miller said the bigger picture should be considered when debating funding for programs such as mobile pit stops because people tend to scrutinize costs when it comes to services for unsheltered or poor people.
“How much money does it cost for all these public amenities that aren’t geared toward homeless people that have a huge city cost that no one talks about?” she asked. “How much does it cost to run museums in L.A.?”
Katherine Webber, an Australian researcher who travels the world studying public toilets, told Vice in April if people can’t access facilities in public spaces, it serves as a barrier to creating inclusive communities. During Webber’s travels to Berlin, she found they were implementing new toilets throughout the city and creating a “large-scale mapping of public toilets.” Berlin has an unhoused population of 41,000, on par with L.A. County’s unsheltered population.
Last year, Open the Books, a government watchdog, mapped reports of homeless encampments in the city of Los Angeles from 2019, using city My311 LA data. The reported number of calls to the city about encampments underscore the need for public toilets throughout the city to avoid situations like Analli Brown having to rely on the generosity of nonprofits to provide buckets for her and her friend to defecate when a toilet is too far.
Jay Flott, the Skid Row practitioner, said he would tell city council members unsure about additional funding to come see people living in “madness.”
“There’s a need for them to put the money where the people need it,” he said. “People out here on the streets need them.”