For Salt Lake City’s homeless population, the sweeping impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have created another looming crisis: a lack of accessible restrooms.
With the closure of many public buildings across the city, there are just 10 public spaces where those who are unsheltered can use the restroom — a reality that has implications for human rights, public health and criminal justice, as some people have few choices but to find a place to relieve themselves on the streets.
It’s a problem that’s borne out in city data, which shows that about 46% of the complaints that have been filed in the city’s SLC Mobile App about human bio waste over the past year have come in since March 6, when the state saw its first coronavirus case.
The numbers are even higher in the Ballpark neighborhood, which the city has identified as a hot spot for bio waste. There, 53% of the complaints from the past year have come in over the past four months, according to a Salt Lake Tribune analysis of complaints provided by Salt Lake City.
“In normal times, people are able to use the restroom in like a 7-Eleven or they can go to a public building or something like that. More stuff is open,” said Michelle Hoon, the project and policy manager for the city’s Homeless Engagement and Response Team, in a recent interview.
Now, because “a lot of those places are just not open,” she said, “it’s kind of then falling to the city to find out how to create that access for people.”
To that end, the city plans Monday to place two portable toilets in the Ballpark community, which has few public facilities. But the proposal has ruffled feathers among some neighbors, who fear that the toilets will create hot spots for criminal activity in an area that’s already seen a number of homicides and violent crimes over the past year.
To mitigate those concerns, the city plans to employ restroom attendants, who will be stationed outside of the portable toilets planned for the corner of 1300 South and West Temple, in a parking lot leased by the Salt Lake Bees baseball team.
“We can put port-a-potties up and if they’re not attended, they tend to kind of be security risks,” Hoon said. “So our preference is to make sure that we really don’t put port-a-potties down anywhere without making sure those are attended.”
The attendants will clean the toilets between uses and encourage anyone who’s spending “an undue amount of time inside to move along,” according to city documents. The restrooms will be open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The rest of the time, they’ll be closed with fencing and a locked gate around them.
City leaders believe the plan will actually make the neighborhood safer because attendants will provide extra eyes on the block and can call police if they see any illegal activity. Homeless outreach teams will continue to maintain a presence in the community, as well as the Volunteers of America Utah’s team and the Community Connection Center.
And the city stresses that the port-a-potties are a temporary measure that will remain in place until the Bees resume play or the units are no longer needed.
“If it’s actually being used, then we can keep it up until the time the Bees take over and need that lot again,” Hoon said. “If it’s not being used, then we’ll take them away.”
‘The decent thing to do’?
Despite these assurances, a recent Ballpark Community Council meeting on the toilet proposal ended with some unhappy neighbors.
“This is a place where reasonable people can come to pretty different conclusions,” said Amy Hawkins, chairwoman of the community council.
For her own part, Hawkins said she recognizes that “having someplace to relieve yourself is a human right recognized by the U.N. and they specify a certain ratio of toilets to people for refugee camps.” But, on the other hand, she argues that the neighborhood “shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of a refugee camp.”
Utah Department of Public Safety Chief Brian Redd, who spoke at the Ballpark meeting earlier this month, told The Tribune that he believes people need to have their basic rights met.
But speaking from his experience with Operation Rio Grande, he said “there’s a lot of crime” that comes with portable toilets, which can become spaces for drug deals and for people to covertly shoot up. The department is also aware of sexual assaults that have occurred in those spaces, he said.
Rather than using portable toilets, Redd argued that “we should be encouraging folks to go to the resource centers, to go to the Weigand Center downtown where they can get long-term help.”
The Ballpark neighborhood is home to a 200-bed men’s and women’s resource center, one of three new homeless shelters that opened in the Salt Lake City area last year.
Salt Lake City Councilman Darin Mano, who lives in and represents the Ballpark neighborhood, said he was originally against placing portable toilets there — though he didn’t get a vote on the issue, since the decision was determined to be an administrative function of the executive branch.
But he said he has since changed his mind, citing the need for “human decency” and the city’s efforts to mitigate any negative impacts of the toilets.
“After thinking it through, I really feel like until we can get people into housing and treatment, we can at least give them a place to go to the bathroom,” he said. “I feel like that’s just the decent thing to do.”
‘It would increase the other issues’
Last October, Ballpark resident Matt Haydon stepped outside his home in the Rowhaus condos near Jefferson Park to find human feces next to a tampon and a few squares of toilet paper.
“I’ve had to clean [human waste] up a couple times,” he said.
Hoon estimates she gets about a phone call a week from the Ballpark area with similar complaints, plus the reports that come in through the SLC Mobile App. Over the past year, the app has yielded 84 complaints, but Hoon says those account for a little less than half the cleanup requests the city gets overall.
Salt Lake City has a $41,000 budget for cleaning up bio waste on public property, including power-washing sidewalks in the area near the downtown library and other areas where people experiencing homelessness camp out.
“If somebody poops in a park or drops their bio waste on a park strip or something like that, then we have the ability to clean it up using a contractor,” Hoon said. “And that’s a really easy situation.”
But bio waste on private property like Haydon’s poses more problems, since homeowners and business owners are technically responsible under the law for managing their own land.
The City Council with its most recent budget appropriated an additional $41,000 to subsidize cleanup of excrement and needles on private property. With that, private property owners would be responsible for half the cost of cleaning up. Hoon estimated the cost of hiring a contractor for a single incident to be around $80.
Public health professionals recommend against do-it-yourself cleanups because of the risk of infectious diseases, like hepatitis A. Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp also notes that it is “against the law to wash human waste into the storm drain.”
“While I certainly understand the impulse to handle it that quickly and relatively easily,” he said, “that is a violation of the stormwater act.”
Rupp said the county health department is generally supportive of portable toilets from a public health perspective.
But even though Haydon is tired of cleaning up bio waste around his home, he said he’s opposed to the portable toilets coming to his neighborhood.
“I’m not sure if it would decrease the bio waste,” he said, “but I am quite sure it would increase the other issues.”
Under Utah law, urination or defecation in a public place other than a public restroom and “under circumstances which the person should know will likely cause affront or alarm to another” is an infraction, punishable by a fine of up to $750 — a daunting prospect for people with few resources.
Many people experiencing homelessness go through Salt Lake City’s homeless court, where they can receive a judgment of community service or treatment hours in lieu of a fine. David Ferguson, a Salt Lake Legal Defender Association attorney, said that of the cases he sees among the homeless population there, “public urination is a significant number of them.”
“A lot of homeless people, it’s clear that it’s embarrassing to them,” he said. “It’s embarrassing that this case is now something that’s public. They go into court and if they’re taking a plea, everybody in the crowd hears about it. ... No one likes to be humiliated and homeless people regularly undergo a lot of humiliation by the fact that they don’t have very much privacy.”
Most of the time, he said, these charges happen at night, when businesses are closed and people experiencing homelessness have few other options of places to relieve themselves. Usually, they’re trying to be discreet and their charges are often the result of a police officer witnessing them rather than a complaint from a civilian.
Ferguson also said that in some cases police tack on a lewdness charge, “so instead of looking at fine or community service, now they’re looking at the possibility of jail. If you get enough lewdness cases, then you can become a sex offender.”
For many homeless people, dealing with the criminal justice system is an added stress, and Ferguson said clients will sometimes plead guilty against the advice of attorneys just so they don’t have to continue with the case. Even minor citations can snowball into a failure to appear or an arrest warrant, and longer criminal records can mean more barriers to jobs and housing.
For those reasons, Ferguson said he would support more access to public toilets, which is a measure he believes would decrease the number of public urination tickets moving through the court system.
But Mano, the Salt Lake City councilman, says the systemic issues that contribute to homelessness will remain — even with better access to public restrooms.
“I definitely don’t see it as solving a problem; I see it as a band-aid to a symptom,” he said of the port-a-potties in his neighborhood. “The issue is not that people don’t have a place to go to the bathroom; the issue is that people don’t have a place to live or access to mental health or substance abuse treatment.
“If we’re able to solve the issue of affordable housing and access to mental health and substance abuse treatment,” he added, “that’s the actual root of the problem, as far as I see it.”