Right to relief: Sacramento’s homeless residents and the civil rights battle for public toilet access
Restroom access is a major concern for some that most of us take for granted
Like many Sacramento residents who experience homelessness, Brittany Stewart says she starts hunting for a public restroom at the first inkling she'll need one. That's because she knows the term “public accommodations” comes with an asterisk for her kind: No shirt, no shoes, no home—no service.
“I'm always told that the bathrooms are out of order or they don't have one,” said Stewart, who once tried bribing her way into a gas station restroom by offering to purchase hot water. It didn't work.
Her experiences aren't unique.
For Sacramento’s growing homeless population, each day starts as a perverted scavenger hunt, filled with rejections and micro-humiliations. So it’s onto the next restaurant, the next gas station, the next public park with its locked facilities. Insides churning, options racing toward zero.
“And before you know it, you’ve walked halfway across town and it’s an emergency,” Stewart said. “And that’s embarrassing.”
The dreaded emergency situation. Every homeless person knows it, or at least the nearly two-dozen individuals who spoke to SN&R for this story. And there’s an emerging consensus that it’s becoming more common with each additional public restroom the city padlocks over vandalism concerns.
“There is not a preponderance of public facilities so people are using the street, which I find completely unacceptable,” said Councilman Jeff Harris, who is behind a plan to add one attended portable restroom in the River District on a trial basis. A couple of toilets will hardly solve the problem, but Harris hopes for more. “I’m trying to push this and push it fast.”
This isn’t the first local attempt at finding a separate-but-equal compromise. But in the four years since a United Nations envoy scolded the city for its lack of public facilities, those accommodations have become more scarce, not less.
According to court records, citations for public defecation and urination are trending up, indicating that desperate people are being forced to choose between breaking the law and compromising their health.
Indeed, restroom discrimination isn’t new—it’s history.
“Bathrooms have long been a site of civil rights struggles,” said UC Davis law professor Courtney G. Joslin.
Like Woody Allen’s Leonard Zelig or Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump, bathroom access keeps popping up for critical cameos throughout history: during the Jim Crow era when restrooms were racially segregated; in the 1970s when restrooms were inserted into the debate over women’s rights legislation; and in 1990, when restroom access was expanded through the Americans with Disabilities Act. Today, public restrooms are at the center of numerous attempts to disenfranchise transgender communities, with North Carolina succeeding where other states have, so far, fallen short. (Click here for more on that.)
As with those other struggles, Sacramento’s restroom debate puts a kaleidoscopic lens to a macro topic. The ongoing Right to Rest occupation near City Hall has drawn unflattering attention to the city’s treatment of its homeless residents, including the ticketing of thousands a year for sleeping outdoors.
So where’s the relief?‘A lawsuit waiting to happen’
Collin “C.J.” Jackson’s morning began with an unexpected windfall.
After packing up his camp in Old Sacramento, the lanky homeless youth with the bushy hair started making the long trek downtown. A man saw him carrying his belongings and handed him $50, unsolicited. One of those rare alms that transforms the day. The cash tore a reminder in his empty stomach, so Jackson hiked to the nearest Denny’s. He leans in and recalls the order. “Blueberry pancakes with ice cream,” he said. “So delicious.”
After the repast, the 18-year-old paid the check and headed for the lavatory. An employee asked what he was doing. Using the bathroom, he said. It’s for customers only, the employee said. I am a customer, Jackson explained.
The detente broke only after the employee reviewed both Jackson’s receipt and video surveillance of him dining. On his way out, Jackson said the guy called him “a disease.”
Reciting this tale inside Wind Youth Services’ drop-in center for homeless youth, Jackson seems unfazed. But the other kids grumble on his behalf. Someone suggests he consult a lawyer. Then they remember the world in which they live. Rights cost money.
Mark Merin says there could be a case.
The attorney serves on the board of Safe Ground Sacramento and has represented homeless individuals in his private practice for years. Fifty years ago, he witnessed racial apartheid in the Jim Crow south, while traveling to Louisiana with a fellow Cornell student, a black Kenyan. The courts have since reaffirmed equal access to public accommodations, which include private businesses like restaurants. Today, a business can’t bar access based on someone’s race, gender or sexual orientation. But what about access to its restroom facilities?
“I think that is an area that still needs to be litigated,” Merin said. “That’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
It wouldn’t be the first time that a lack of restrooms got Sacramento into trouble.
Back in 2011, a UN Human Rights Council inspector visited a burgeoning tent encampment along the American River, and discovered a lack of sanitation and clean water. The findings made their way into a critical January 2012 letter to Mayor Kevin Johnson.
“Because evacuation of the bowels and bladder is a necessary biological function and because denial of opportunities to do so in a lawful and dignified manner can both compromise human dignity and cause suffering, such denial could, in some cases, amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” wrote UN Special Rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque.
In one section, de Albuquerque described the weekly chores of the encampment’s self-appointed sanitation technician, a homeless man named Tim Buckley. Using a jimmy-rigged sanitation “system” that consisted of an open-faced seat attached to a double-bagged plastic bladder, de Albuquerque wrote, Buckley hauled the 100-pound bags by bicycle every week to a public restroom a few miles away, dumped their contents into a toilet and rinsed his hands with lemon water.
“Tim said that even though his job was difficult, he did it for the community, especially the women,” de Albuquerque wrote. Noting that both the city and county enforced ordinances against public defecation and urination, she added that the “criminalization” of those practices “combined with a lack of public toilets leaves the homeless people in a desperate situation and without alternatives.”
As scathing and public as the letter was, it didn’t usher in any sort of grand policy shift. Kind of the opposite, in fact.‘A few bad apples’
Inside the crowded waiting room of Maryhouse, a daytime hospitality center for homeless women and their children, Demetria sits with her back to a baby-blue wall. The mother has just been asked what she and her 13-year-old daughter, who has autism, do when one of them needs to use the bathroom.
“We do a lot of walking,” she said in a soft voice, eyes forward. “Some restaurants want you to pay first. And we’re homeless, so we don’t even have a nickel.”
So they move on and keep searching, playing a cruel lottery just to “go” in a dignified manner.
Spend any amount of time with the people at Sacramento Loaves & Fishes and its various programs, and it quickly becomes clear how much thought and effort go into something many of us take for granted. One Loaves staffer remembers paying $3 of his last $12 to use a cafe restroom the very first week he was homeless. Homeless or hospitalized since 2012, another man, veteran Greg Metcalf, says the options are limited.
“There’s really nowhere you can go,” he said. “I think it falls under civil rights commitments.”
Joan Burke is Loaves & Fishes’ director of advocacy. She says the shower and restroom facilities provided on the grounds of the area’s flagship services-provider rank as the most critical services offered to the approximately 600 daily visitors. The bathrooms are regularly cleaned by staff, largely respected by their users and supplied with a year’s worth of donated toilet paper, courtesy of an annual drive that occurs each July.
“There are just fundamental things that we as a society should make sure people have,” she said from her modest office inside the Welcoming Center, which looks onto a men’s room door. “It’s not particularly expensive. And it’s not brain surgery, either.”
Tell that to the city.
Citing the challenges associated with ongoing maintenance, the city has closed additional public restrooms in the four years since the UN letter.
In all, 12 city park restrooms out of 57 have been closed to the general public, with others closed for “renovations.” Two of the restrooms are located in downtown parks—Cesar Chavez Plaza on I and Ninth streets and Fremont Park on Q and 15th streets. An additional eight park restrooms are restricted to daytime hours, which is what the UN letter criticized.
City spokeswoman Marycon Razo says most closures occurred at the requests of elected leaders, police officials or community members. She couldn’t get specific on when the closures occurred, saying they were sometimes closed “at a moment’s notice,” and for various reasons.
A city webpage dedicated to “facts” about homelessness is more descriptive.
“Toilets have been backed up with hypodermic needles, janitors have found used ’foils’ with drug residue in toilets, and soiled underwear has been left on and around the toilets,” the webpage states. “Overall, the bathrooms have become filthy.”
According to a city breakdown of costs associated with homelessness, the city spent $326,000 during the 2014-15 fiscal year to tidy up park restrooms that homeless people used for shelter and bathing.
Councilman Harris says actual costs are difficult to pin down since most human waste cleanup is performed by property and business districts. He said the city tried reopening the bathrooms in Chavez Plaza twice, “and they were destroyed twice.” The same thing happened when the bathrooms in City Hall were left unsupervised, he added.
“I hate to say it, but people are brutal on our public facilities,” he said. “That part of our human condition I can’t explain.”
No one seems able to.
The homeless individuals interviewed by SN&R say they’re as grossed out by trashed restrooms as anyone else, more so since that’s their only option. But they also say they shouldn’t be punished for the actions of a few, or stereotyped as the only ones responsible.
“You can’t just generalize it and close it because of a few bad apples,” said a Maryhouse guest who declined to give her name. “What do they prefer? Do they prefer people literally defecating on the streets?”
Demetria insisted that’s one option she and her daughter won’t consider. When it’s an emergency—and that isn’t rare—she and her daughter start heading for the nearest emergency room, because at least there they’ll find relief.
“It’s always how are we going to get there,” she said. “It’s gotten harder.”
Ryan Loofbourrow has been having this very conversation for more than two decades.
Loofbourrow is the present director of Sacramento Steps Forward, which strategizes approaches and coordinates funding for ending homelessness in the county. In the early 1990s, however, he was with the Downtown Sacramento Partnership and working with not-yet-Mayor Heather Fargo on getting human waste off the streets and into the porcelain.
“It’s always been a problem,” he said.
And the problem locations were the same then as they are now: light-rail and bus stops, alleyways and sidewalks near popular clubs.
The powers that were came up with a port-a-potty pilot project. Going off memory, Loofbourrow estimates that less than a dozen portable restrooms were posted like sentries at funky alleys circa 1995. There was even a toilet paper-cutting ceremony, he says with a chuckle.
But a year later, the experiment was deemed a failure.
Loofbourrow says there were plenty of people who used the restrooms properly. But there was also a cross section of folks who trashed the cramped facilities through copulation, drug use and random acts of restroom violence. By the time a portable near a former Greyhound station was burned to the ground, Loofbourrow says the white flag was waved. “They got so abused,” he sighed. “It just wasn’t worth it.”
Loofbourrow has been searching for answers ever since. He’s checked out self-cleaning robot toilets in San Francisco (ruined) and the patented version in Portland (better), a Santa Cruz parking garage that turned its restroom into a translucent fishbowl, and attendant models in Denver (decent) and San Diego (not so much). He’s researched fee-activated shower kiosks along the Alaskan pipeline and even pitched, unsuccessfully, the open urinal stalls featured in European cities like Brussels and Amsterdam, which leave a urinating man’s backside visible. He’s pondered how much ankle stall-doors should show, embraced the logic of stingy T.P. dispensers (which make it hard for people to clog pipes).
“Of all the things I’ve had to manage, these were the hardest,” he said like a man who’s glad he no longer manages them.
That task now belongs to Harris. The councilman sits on the subcommittee that was formed in response to the Right to Rest protests that began in December, and has carved out restroom access as his sub-issue to address. “I get the human impacts of it,” he said. “When you got to go, you got to go.”
Under his recommendation, the city will test-pilot one rig featuring two flushing lavatories and two sinks on an elevated trailer, along with receptacles for trash and needles, regularly emptied throughout the day and minded by a single attendant.
Harris saw this approach successfully deployed in multiple locations around San Francisco, including the Mission district, where he chatted with the attendant, a formerly homeless man out of Fairfield who earned $16 an hour to keep the environs clean and stocked. “I was thoroughly impressed,” Harris said. “I was tickled pink.”
While S.F. has 10 of these roaming units, Sacramento will start with one in the River District—and for only six months. But Harris would like to see additional portables set up downtown.
With no plumbing hookup required, the price tag is estimated to be around $100,000 for six months, less than what the city spends on cleaning park restrooms annually. But Harris says he has already received pushback from the local business community, which worries the restrooms will be an eyesore and attract more homeless people to the area.
“I feel the fears are not really founded,” Harris noted.
Homeless individuals and their advocates find those fears insulting. They say the population is already here and should be shown some basic human decency.
“Society should provide places for people to go to the toilet as a matter of both the individual and the common good,” said Ronald Blubaugh, a retired judge who runs Loaves & Fishes’ free legal clinic. “If people have to relieve themselves they will do it. Writing a statutory prohibition will not stop them.”
But those statutes do criminalize natural bodily functions. Both the city and county of Sacramento have ordinances on the books that make it unlawful for people to urinate or defecate in public.
While Blubaugh said it’s been months since he’s seen the last such ticket, they are inching upward. According to the Sacramento Superior Court, its Carol Miller Justice Center processed 88 citations last year, up five from the previous year. Through April 4, the justice center processed 32 citations. All were filed under the city’s ordinance, not the county’s.
If the pace holds up, between 90 and 100 people could be ticketed by the end of this year.
“Most of the tickets are for homeless people,” Merin contended.
He believes it’s intentional—drawing down the number of restrooms and then busting people who can no longer hold it—and fits with the city’s approach to ticketing or arresting homeless people for sleeping outdoors. “That is a strategy that the public agencies have adopted to discourage homeless people from staying in their area,” he said.
“It’s not that I’m cynical,” he added. “It’s that I’m perceptive. And maybe that’s worse.”‘Access to the public square’
On the third floor of a chalky commercial building in Midtown, a dozen homeless kids and young adults take turns venting into an empty circle.
This patchily attired space—with its mismatched couches and steampunk kitchenette, a rattling kennel crate by the door and clothing rack in the corner—houses the Wind Youth Services drop-in center, the only refuge for unaccompanied homeless youth in five counties. On this squally Friday afternoon, street outreach coordinator Niki Jones has united the diverse group around a lightning-rod topic: bathrooms.
Specifically, where do you go when you have no place to go?
“I have a few designated pop-and-squats,” offered Rhi. “It’s fucked up because females have to use the bathroom no matter what.” She waits a beat for the obvious to set in. “Because we have a menstrual cycle.”
“They really need more public bathrooms,” added Jason, whose skinny frame has earned him the nickname “Bones.” When businesses don’t let him use their facilities, he waits outside until the foot traffic dies down and sneaks into an alley. “And sometimes, it’s like, god damn,” he said of the wait.
There are so many of these stories, and they tumble out over each other.
The youth here discuss trying not to “look homeless” as they pass through a jingling door, and worry about gallstones and bladder infections. There’s an underpass they all know to be a demilitarized sewer. One bespectacled youth, new to the area, says he’s seen people drop trou in front of him and release their bowels.
“I’ve noticed feces everywhere,” Stewart agreed.
After staying quiet most of the session, Jason’s girlfriend Nereida, with puppy-dog eyes and braces, chimes in. “Sometimes I don’t drink a lot because I don’t want to piss myself at night,” she shared.
She and her boyfriend are double outlaws, in a way. Recently homeless, they’ve been breaking the city’s “anti-camping” law by sleeping outside.
Like other civil rights battlegrounds, toilets represent one piece of an interconnected puzzle, says Laura E. Durso, the director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. To her, the evolving national debate about who gets to use public facilities hints at something deeper, like a message scrawled on a bathroom wall.
“This is the fight we’re having,” she said. “Who has access to the public square?”
At the drop-in center, the kids have an answer: not them.
Their discussion quickly flashes past restrooms to the myriad barriers they face in trying to come in from the cold: camping and panhandling tickets, shelter lotteries, housing waits and the profound sense that society doesn’t care about them.
“Society fucking sucks,” Rhi said, zeroing on the mood in the room. Then the 20-year-old corrected herself. “Not society. Politics.”