The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously Friday to make it illegal to urinate or defecate in public, a step many said was necessary to curb a growing problem of human waste on city streets.
Some advocates for the homeless were outraged. They accused elected officials of criminalizing an act that many homeless people often have no choice but to commit because of the lack of public toilets in Los Angeles, and said officials should instead spend their time trying to solve underlying social problems that cause homelessness.
"Criminalizing the behavior of people utilizing their bodily functions is appalling," said Bilal Ali, a member of the Los Angeles Community Action Network. "It's reflective of the lack of political will of the City Council to muster up the energy and creativity to create an alternative for people who are ... living day to day lives of despair and hopelessness."
Council members, on the other hand, said the law is necessary because human waste is a problem from downtown to West Los Angeles.
What's especially puzzling to officials is that people seem to be relieving themselves outdoors, even in areas such as Venice Beach, where clean public toilets abound.
"This is a public health hazard," Councilwoman Jan Perry said. Under the new law, relieving yourself in public will be punishable by a fine of as much as $1,000 and as long as six months in jail. Council members pledged that people would be prosecuted only in cases when there is a public toilet nearby that they failed to use.
They also said they planned to add more city restroom facilities and to make sure police officers and prosecutors are properly trained so they won't cite people who have no available bathroom.
"The city cannot, should not and will not enforce this ordinance where this is no alternative," Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski said.
Los Angeles officials have been wrestling with how to keep human waste off streets for years, and the issue has sometimes intersected with a political struggle over where and whether to place toilets on the streets.
In 1994, a band of protesters blocked the entrance to a City Hall mens' room to protest the lack of public toilets on skid row.
These days, there are public toilets in the area where thousands of homeless people live, but not nearly enough of them, according to advocates and homeless people.
"At nighttime, you go anywhere," said Richard Ford, 60. His friend Robert Smith, 60, who sleeps each night in a cardboard box in the shadow of downtown skyscrapers, said that sometimes people have no choice but to use the streets.
The law against urinating and defecating on city streets was first proposed in 2000, in part because it had come to the attention of city leaders that Los Angeles -- unlike New York, Houston, Seattle and Portland -- had no such law.
Until recently, law enforcement officials had been using a law against littering to go after those who did such acts in public.
After prosecutors decided that rule didn't apply, officials proposed outlawing public urination and defecation.
But officials postponed putting the law into effect until public toilets could be ordered and installed on city streets.
A year later, in July 2001, council members voted to install 150 self-cleaning privies, like the kind found on leafy Paris boulevards, in Los Angeles neighborhoods.
But the stylish toilets still have not been installed -- and some communities are saying they don't want them in their neighborhoods. Some on skid row said Friday that public facilities are often occupied by people having sex.
Still, with the toilets coming at least to some areas next year, council members decided it was time to move on the ordinance, in part because the problem seems to be growing.
Even as they voted for the law, however, some council members expressed concern that the city needed to address the roots of homelessness more.
"No rational person" would support the disposing of human waste in public, said Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa. "But without the public toilets and the targeted services we need, it's just a quick fix."
Villaraigosa added that he had been distressed to learn that Los Angeles had been voted one of the meanest cities in the country when it comes to addressing the needs of the homeless. One reason for that designation, he said, is that the city "passes ordinances like this that don't have the other side to it."
Friday's action is the latest in a flurry of quality-of-life ordinances enacted by the council over the last few months. They include increased regulations for taco stands and ice cream trucks, and seizing the cars of those who illegally dump sofas, try to buy drugs or solicit prostitution.