Inhumane threat to health, commerce

Cost of 24-hour restrooms negligible compared to potential consequences

San Diego officials’ recent efforts to battle an outbreak of Hepatitis A by opening 24-hour public restrooms underscores the significance of the city of Chico’s failure to provide round-the-clock facilities in downtown.

As has been reported in recent weeks, that virus has taken hold in that seaside metro due to a lack of sanitation—namely, from homeless individuals defecating on public rights of way because they have nowhere else to relieve themselves.

Sound familiar?

It should, considering public urination and defecation has been a perennial topic during city meetings. Recall, if you will, Vice Mayor Reanette Fillmer noting she’d ruined a pair of shoes by stepping in feces (she put it less eloquently) during a trip to San Francisco, and then using that experience as a way to relate to complaints from Chicoans who’d stepped in human waste here in our backyard. She also used it as justification for her aye vote on a local law that criminalizes homelessness (the Offenses Against Waterways ordinance).

Many of the complaints about human waste in public spaces have come from the business community, especially from downtown merchants, who are the ones who’ve had to deal with the brunt of the issue over the years. And it appears those same members of the business community are in the position of having to deal with it once again.

That’s because, after a test run of keeping City Plaza’s restrooms open day and night, the city began closing them in the evening back in April. That was part of the discussion at a meeting of the Internal Affairs Committee (IAC), during which it was announced that the trial actually ended early because people were camping out in the restrooms and trashing them, causing “unsustainable vandalism” (see “Temporary relief,” Downstroke, Sept. 14).

As a result, the bathrooms are now closed overnight indefinitely. Indeed, city leaders are kicking the can down the road. Sure, there was some talk about someday purchasing a vandalism-resistant facility. But we know what that sort of vague language ends up resulting in: bubkiss, zilch, squat.

Here’s the weird part: Nearly everyone agrees that such facilities are needed. By everyone, we’re referring to city staff, homeless individuals and their advocates, and downtown business owners and their advocates (read: the Chico Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Chico Business Association). Indeed, downtown merchants reported fewer instances of finding human waste outside of their shops during the trial. Considering the reason the city began keeping the restrooms open 24 hours in the first place was to appease local business interests, the operation was successful.

On many levels, it behooves the city to provide such overnight amenities. After all, its main source of revenue is sales tax. If city leaders want people to continue coming downtown and spending money, keeping the sidewalks and alcoves of businesses free of human waste seems like a no-brainer. From an economic perspective, city leaders ought to consider the vandalism to the restrooms a cost of doing business.

So, what to do? At a minimum, the City Council ought to provide the public with overnight amenities in the form of a porta-potty and hand-washing station somewhere in the vicinity of downtown. Doing so is an affordable alternative that buoys the economic interests they cater to most.

Moreover, it’s something that could head off a public health crisis like the one San Diego is battling. There, 16 people have died. To stem the virus, the city is pressure-washing entire blocks with bleach. Those measures, among others, will come with a hefty price tag.

Another perspective that has thus far been lost on the City Council is the fact that human beings shouldn’t be without such amenities. Having a place to relieve oneself is a necessity of everyday life. Locking the doors of public restrooms for about half of the day every day robs the homeless members of our community of their dignity. It’s safe to say that none of them wants to perform bodily functions in public.