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City considers adding public restrooms to help fight hepatitis

LOS ANGELES — With the city facing an outbreak of hepatitis A, the Los Angeles City Council approved a plan Oct. 27 to create a system of portable restrooms to help address the problem.

Councilman Mike Bonin recently introduced a motion, seconded by Councilman Jose Huizar, that calls on the city to begin the steps of creating the system, and it was approved by a vote of 11-0.

“Without access to the basic right of a restroom, people living on the streets are at a significantly increased risk of contracting diseases like hepatitis A that are spread through human feces,” the motion states.

The motion directs city staff to start developing a program of portable public restrooms possibly modeled after the “Pit Stop” program in San Francisco.

The motion also seeks a report on available funding sources for emergency portable restrooms, as well as the bathroom attendants required to operate them.

It also directs the city attorney to report on the city’s laws regarding the placement of portable restrooms in designated locations, including city-owned parking lots.

“Opening additional public restrooms faces two challenges: funding and proper locations,” the motion says.

“Best practices indicate public restrooms should be staffed by attendants to keep the facilities clean and free of criminal activity. And even if adequate funding were available, there remains a lack of adequate space in our dense neighborhoods to place restrooms without encroaching in the public right-of-way.”

The Pit Stop Program is a partnership between Bay Area Rapid Transit and the city of San Francisco that provides portable public toilets at 17 locations.

Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver disease that can spread easily through homeless populations because it thrives in unsanitary conditions and is primarily spread through contact with feces via surfaces or sexual contact.

Reports of the disease among the homeless have spiked in recent months in Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Cruz, causing Los Angeles County to declare an official outbreak in September.

The motion was approved two days after activists attempted to deliver a pair of toilets to the office of Mayor Eric Garcetti and also occupied stalls in two City Hall restrooms for several hours in an attempt to bring awareness to the lack of restrooms on Skid Row.

A report released in June found there are only nine public toilets available at night in the Skid Row neighborhood, where roughly 1,800 homeless people sleep.

The lack of toilets is worse than refugees in Syria are experiencing and violate the United Nations standards of hygiene, according to the “No Place to Go” report prepared by homeless advocacy groups, including the Los Angeles Central Providers Collaborative, Los Angeles Community Action Network and the Downtown Women’s Center.

Matt Harper of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, a Skid Row soup kitchen, took part in the toilet delivery at City Hall Oct. 25.

“We thought that since L.A. has sister cities throughout the world, maybe we can be treated with the same respect and investment for districts as sister cities are, so we wanted to bring the toilets to the mayor from the sister city of Skid Row in hopes that it could be a partnership for a future of cooperation and collaboration,” Harper told City News Service.

Harper said that Los Angeles Police Department officers working security told him that because the toilet was made of porcelain — which is made from glass, and City Hall does not allow visitors to bring glass containers — the toilets would not be allowed inside.

A spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti responded to the demonstration.

“Mayor Garcetti is committed to improving health and safety for Angelenos affected by the homelessness crisis, and the city is dedicating new resources to expanding access to restroom and shower facilities, as well as keeping our streets and sidewalks clean,” said Garcetti spokesman Alex Comisar.

“This year’s budget included $1.4 million for the maintenance and expansion of toilets on Skid Row, and the city is working to create new facilities in other areas of Los Angeles — because no one should be forced to live in unhealthy, dangerous, or unclean conditions while they are waiting to move into new permanent supportive housing,” he said.

Huizar said the city is working to bring more restrooms to Skid Row.

“Our challenges in Skid Row are that portable bathrooms are often targeted for illicit activity and their locks are broken. The hygiene center that we’re bringing to Skid Row is not the final solution, but it will provide more than a dozen bathrooms, showers and laundry access, along with attendants to monitor and assist,” Huizar said in a statement.

Harper said while he applauds the motion by Bonin and Huizar, it falls short of addressing the restroom needs of Skid Row.

“We want them to recognize that the need is greater than an individual group of toilets. We just want to make sure it’s not a symbolic act of providing a few and that it’s actually an effective act of meeting the needs of folks of Skid Row,” Harper said.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation has responded to the outbreak of hepatitis A by offering free vaccines to homeless populations.

In collaboration with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, the foundation is offering vaccines every other Thursday through its mobile testing vans that will make stops among clusters of homeless communities.

We must immediately take action to provide more portable toilets and hand-washing stations to homeless encampments that are continuing to grow in number and size around Los Angeles,” said foundation President Michael Weinstein. “We will continue to work with local health officials to reach as many people as possible.”

“This public health emergency is a wake up call that the city of Los Angeles needs to develop and implement a consistent strategy to help our homeless populations. … The city needs to provide improved sanitary conditions for the homeless to help stem disease and infections and put in place a workable plan to offer shelter for people who are forced to live on the streets each day.”