Wander a few blocks southeast of Los Angeles City Hall and you'll catch a briny whiff from the seafood processing plants. But it's a pungent, distinctly human odor that troubles the business owners of Central City East.
Jammed into a few square miles alongside the city's highest concentration of homeless people, the industrial district surrounding skid row long has doubled as a toilet for the down and out.
But business owners only recently discovered why few people are prosecuted for relieving themselves in public. There's no law that says you can't. At least not on the books in Los Angeles.
"We were stunned," said Tracey Lovejoy, executive director of the Central City East Assn., a business organization representing the gritty but bustling area. "Like everyone else, we just assumed it was illegal."
The group is now lobbying for a city ordinance to make public urination and defecation misdemeanors, punishable by fines as high as $1,000 and up to six months in jail.
The proposed legislation has angered homeless advocates and revived a decade-old battle over portable toilets on skid row. Critics question the wisdom of tying up police officers, courts and jail cells to punish indigent people for whom a fine is no deterrent.
Even the business owners admit that laws alone aren't the solution. But with pressure on the city to polish its act in advance of the Democratic National Convention in August, supporters are incredulous that Los Angeles has stricter bathroom laws for pets than it does for people.
How is it possible that the municipal code fines dog owners who don't scoop up after Fido, but says nothing about human beings who relieve themselves on the street?
Turns out that while many cities have crafted municipal legislation to combat the practice, Los Angeles traditionally has relied on state pollution laws instead. One old standby is California Penal Code Section 375, which prohibits illegal dumping of any "liquid, gaseous or solid substance" that is "nauseous, sickening, irritating or offensive."
But because those statutes refer to bodily functions only euphemistically at best, some city prosecutors have concluded that state lawmakers never intended environmental codes to apply to bathroom behavior. The upshot is few arrests or citations. Not to mention some potentially odd enforcement inequities.
For example, state law does explicitly prohibit urination and defecation on public transit. Thus it's easier for police to cite people who relieve themselves inside city buses than outside of them.
"Our hands are kind of tied," said Sgt. Silva Atwater of the LAPD's Central Division. "It has gotten to the point where we are really reaching for straws."
It's the stuff of scatological satire, but it's no joke to business owners in Los Angeles' urban core, who recognize that quality-of-life issues have been critical to other cities' effort to revitalize their crumbling centers.
New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani gained national attention by cracking down on squeegee men, panhandlers and graffiti taggers. So-called business improvement districts, or BIDs, with their merchant-funded security guards and sanitation crews, have rejuvenated aging commercial strips nationwide.
Balancing the Needs of Businesses, Citizens
Los Angeles business owners have embraced the concept as well, using BIDs to nurture creeping redevelopment in areas such as Hollywood and downtown. But they contend that their cleanup efforts are only part of the equation. While many are sympathetic to the plight of the homeless, they say the city must get serious about tackling nuisance crime if these areas are to return to their former glory.
"Clearly we need to balance the social service needs of our citizens with the economic needs of our businesses," said Kerry Morrison, executive director of the Hollywood Entertainment District BID. "But behavior like public urination works against everything we're trying to accomplish down here. . . . We'd welcome an ordinance with some teeth in it."
Nowhere is the drumbeat louder than Central City East, an old-economy cluster of food, flower and toy wholesalers, small manufacturers and warehouses that has become ground zero for the city's potty politics.
Social services have become so concentrated in the district that a single half-square-mile area now contains 66 missions, welfare hotels, soup kitchens, clinics and shelters. What hasn't kept pace is public restrooms. Just 26 city-funded portable privies serve an area frequented by an estimated 2,000 to 5,000 homeless people.
Not surprisingly, the product of those messy mathematics winds up in the surrounding streets, alleys and sidewalks. Public urination is practiced so openly as to be unremarkable to those who dwell there.
"In front of God, the police and everybody," said Pat, a wizened woman wearing a black stocking cap and an expression of resignation as a man urinated near her makeshift shelter on 5th Street. "That's how they do down here."