They were only portable toilets. But to the homeless people who camp on Towne Avenue in Los Angeles' Skid Row and paid out of their own pockets to rent them, they were a symbol.
They meant, camp leader David Bryant said, "that we can do for ourselves, that we can be clean."
But at dawn Tuesday, a work crew removed them.
It was the latest incident in an ongoing controversy over city-sponsored sweeps, begun last month, of public encampments on Skid Row.
City officials have maintained that such settlements are either unsanitary or pockets of crime. And on Monday eight people, none of them homeless, were arrested for investigation of interfering with a police officer, a misdemeanor.
The toilets were removed in response to a Los Angeles County Department of Health Services action, not the city's. And the action occurred the same day that city officials met with the camp's leadership to arrange for a "model cleanup," a possible prototype of future sweeps, on Thursday.
The Towne Avenue encampment, known as the "Love camp" since it was organized by the Union of the Homeless in January, has a different reputation from that of half a dozen others on Skid Row. Its residents, numbering around 50, rotate cooking, cleaning and security duties and share the $70-a-month rental cost of the portable toilets.
The removal of the toilets came as a surprise to Deputy Mayor Grace Davis, who said, "Neither the mayor nor I knew anything about it."
And it was news to Maureen Kindel, president of the Board of Public Works, who met with Towne Avenue leaders Tuesday. "We feel it is organized," Kindel said of the camp. "I believe that is a group trying to grab hold of life."
But county inspectors issued a notice of violation about the toilets to O. H. Casey Co. of La Mirada, which owns them. County health spokesman Steve Stewart said that the toilets were not a health problem but that their sidewalk location was a violation of county Health Code rules, mandating that chemical toilets be 10 feet from a sidewalk.
The department "had to respond" when a local complaint was made, Stewart said, declining to name the complainant.
Casey removed the toilets Tuesday, a company spokeswoman said.
At the special Towne Avenue sweep Thursday, Kindel said, the city will provide hoses, shovels and brooms so that residents can clean the block themselves. Then, she said, "we will come by and pick up the debris."
The city postponed other scheduled sweeps until after Thursday, Kindel added, "to see if this works better. . . . We are definitely searching for the best possible way to clean the streets.
"Hopefully they'll get them back," she said of the toilets.
County health's Stewart said that if a permit were issued by the city, the toilets could remain.
Kindel said, "If we can, we'll be happy to consider" such a permit; she said she asked the city attorney's office to study the matter.