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Making the streets a little less mean

Denying basic necessities such as toilets to the homeless is cruel and solves nothing in the long run.

December 24, 2012
  • A woman sleeps just off the boardwalk in Venice Beach in Nov. 2010. Withholding sanitary toilet facilities in order to discourage homeless people from coming to a neighborhood is cruel and solves nothing in the long run.
A woman sleeps just off the boardwalk in Venice Beach in Nov. 2010. Withholding… (Los Angeles Times )

David Busch, the creator of an improvised public toilet — consisting of a bucket, soapy water and a tent for privacy — was arrested in April on charges of public nuisance and leaving property on the sidewalk. A homeless man and self-styled advocate for people who live on the streets, Busch went on trial last week in a Los Angeles court, facing the charges stemming from his operation of the makeshift restroom on 3rd Avenue in Venice.

Some said it was an outrage. Some called it a stunt. Still others saw it as a desperately needed measure to make life livable for homeless people. In the end, a jury found Busch not guilty of the public nuisance charge. But this legal skirmish is unlikely to be the last battle in the long citywide war over how to treat the homeless.

One of the most active fronts in the conflict these days is Venice, where the beach, the boardwalk and the increasingly valuable real estate have created a dense mix of homeowners, retailers, tourists and homeless. As more affluent people and upscale businesses have moved in, the debate over the homeless has grown louder and more acrimonious. Even homeowners disagree over how to address the problem.

There's not much question about long-term policy. Most agree that the best way to address homelessness is to create more permanent supportive housing — as opposed to nightly shelter beds — that offer people not just a place to live but also services to help them deal with substance abuse or mental health problems. More such units are made available each year in the city through a variety of public programs and private aid. (Federal funds were used for a Venice project, opening in February, that will provide housing and services to 30 homeless people and 94 low-income seniors.) But permanent supportive housing is costly, and there are still nowhere near enough units to house everyone.

In the meantime, the homeless must have sanitary toilet facilities. This is a basic and inescapable fact, a matter of simple humanity for people who live on the streets and an issue of public health for all. Withholding basic necessities in an effort to discourage the homeless from coming to a neighborhood is cruel and solves nothing in the long run. They will simply decamp to another neighborhood where their new neighbors will have to cope with them. And wherever the homeless end up, if there are no public bathrooms, they will be compelled to soil sidewalks or lawns. No one wants this.

A jerry-rigged bathroom like the one Busch created is not a solution, even a temporary one, despite the fact that Busch provided towelettes and toilet paper and meticulously cleaned it, according to his lawyer. Getting real, workable public toilets must be a municipal priority. But that can take some doing. On downtown's skid row, where on any given night an estimated 1,500 or more people are without shelter, there are five self-cleaning public toilets, none of which is open around the clock. The county health department recommended in May that the city provide more public toilets in the area.

Because Venice is a tourist mecca, there are actually dozens of public toilets in six restroom buildings along its beach. But they all close at 11 p.m. and do not reopen until 6 a.m. (They closed at sunset until Councilman Bill Rosendahl lobbied to keep them open later.) Those restrooms can't remain open later than the boardwalk, which closes to the public at midnight. There are also public restrooms inside the Westminster Senior Center, which is run by the city, but the center closes at 4 p.m. Keeping it open later or all night would require someone to staff its entrance, probably a security guard. That seems an investment worth making.

Another possibility would be to place self-cleaning toilets or portable toilets in the county-owned parking lots near the beaches. The hurdle there is that the California Coastal Commission requires that parking lots along the beach be used only for parking. However, county officials could apply for a permit from the commission if they could make a persuasive case that facilities at these locations are necessary.

Complicating this issue further is that restrooms can attract criminal activity, including drug dealing, drug use and prostitution. But the specter of crime should not stop the city from setting up services intended for a basic need.

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