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At night on Skid Row, nearly 2,000 homeless people share just nine toilets

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A new report outlines an awful lack of bathroom facilities, impacting the health and dignity of residents at the sprawling LA homeless encampment

The toilets are located in stalls without doors, and bathroom tissue is only available from an attendant seated outside.

However unprepossessing, these nine cisterns in a sprawling complex on Los Angeles Skid Row are the only ones available at night to approximately 1,800 people sleeping on the surrounding streets, according to a new report out Thursday.

The authors say that this contravenes a standard laid out by the United Nations for long-term refugee camps, which specifies one toilet for 20 people at the most. Los Angeles is therefore meeting only about 10% of the need.

It is perhaps the most basic human right that each of us be able to complete the most basic of human functions in a clean and safe space, suggests the study, which was produced by Los Angeles Central Providers Collaborative, an alliance of major organizations working on Skid Row, as well as other experts. Judging by the odors that permeate the neighborhood, such spaces are in short supply.

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Its really hard to explain in words how awful and how much of a public health crisis this is, said Stephany Campos, the executive administrator of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles and a contributor to the report.

We should not let any human being experience that kind of embarrassment or indignity or shame of having to utilize a sidewalk for a restroom, let alone live in the filth, said Andy Bales, head of the Union Rescue Mission, a major services provider.

Bales speaks from experience his right foot and part of his shin were amputated last year after becoming infected, which his doctor linked to the conditions in which he worked. I lost my leg because I got E coli and staph and strep from the sidewalk because of feces being present.

The Los Angeles mayors office does not contest the findings of the report, and indeed in 2012 a survey by the countys public health department found that there were small piles of feces and/or urine on the sidewalks and grass areas of eight of the 10 blocks they examined, as well as accumulated human excreta in two storm drains. It indicated there was an increased risk of meningitis, tuberculosis, diarrheal disease and many other illnesses. Currently the city performs regular street cleanings.

Inside
Inside one of the bathroom stalls shared by homeless people in LAs Skid Row area. Photograph: Alastair Gee for the Guardian

Skid Rows hygiene problems could hardly be more pressing. In the latest count, Los Angeles County saw a 23% increase in the number of homeless people, to 57,794. Our infrastructure hasnt caught up, said Alisa Orduna, homelessness policy director in the mayors office. This is the number one issue that residents talk about.

The report says there is an immediate need for 100 portable toilets available 24 hours a day, and also advocates for staffed, mobile toilet kiosks. Orduna said the city was budgeting an extra $500,000 of funding for such mobile solutions, and is investing in permanent bathrooms in two parks, though they will be closed at night.

During the day, there may be as many as 43 available toilets, but the authors say that because the population of Skid Row swells after sunrise, this is still well below the UN standard.

A reporter visited the nine nighttime toilets, located on the grounds of a major homelessness services provider called the Midnight Mission, at 1am on Thursday. An emergency was underway: a grizzled man was lying on the ground in a corner, his head cradled by another man as he convulsed with what staff thought was an epileptic or drug-induced fit. Medics in a wailing fire truck arrived to help him up.

Through the night there was a steady stream of visitors, who entered past a guard into a courtyard where dozens of people slept on the floor in the open-air. They walked up to a worker named Antwan Williams, who was sat behind an upturned cardboard box and handed out small bundles of bathroom tissue.

The mens toilet was clean but unadorned. When the restrooms were opened they had paper towel dispensers and tissue dispensers and mirrors, everything nice, said Marcus Butler, head of security at the mission. But they were quickly destroyed; some homeless people a minority, he stressed are just angry, and some days are just bad days.

Men sat on toilets, visible to anyone passing through the restroom. Butler called out greetings to them, or asked how they were. He has sometimes found people who have overdosed in the stalls, a needle still stuck in their arms, which suggests the advantages of not having doors.

Marcus
Marcus Butler, head of security, inside the bathroom on a recent night. Photograph: Alastair Gee for the Guardian

These bathrooms are a blessing, said Megan Neidhart, 25, as she left the womens restroom sometime past 3am. When she cant make it here, her options are grim: she explained how she has used used buckets and plastic bags. It sucks sometimes Ive spilled the bag of pee in the tent.

Observers acknowledge that the mission is trying to do a difficult job in adverse conditions. I think that I can speak on behalf of anyone who is providing public bathrooms on Skid Row that if we had an unlimited budget this is not how we would provide them, said the missions chief, G. Michael Arnold.

To produce the toilet report, researchers sought to pin down the number of lavatories in the area as precisely as possible, and nine teams of auditors made 86 visits to public toilets at different times of the day.

There are five automated public toilets provided by the city, but the auditors found that on average, at any one time four were out of service, and the one that functioned most frequently was also the farthest away from the heart of Skid Row. In any event these toilets seemed to be powered down at night.

Among all the toilets including portable toilets in parks and those made available by homeless service providers some were so soiled with fecal matter and debris that auditors reported that they did not feel safe using them. They described the implications for disabled people: the wheels of their wheelchairs pick up excreta, which they then must touch. Stall dividers were sometimes absent, and the report did not count such toilets as useable. (There are actually 10 toilets available at the Midnight Mission, but the auditors excluded one from the tally because it was particularly exposed and felt unsafe to use.)

Inequality shapes access to restrooms. Auditors found that it was easier for white people who did not look homeless to gain permission to use locked toilets than it was for people of color or those who appeared to be living outside. Menstrual products are unavailable in many places.

One auditor, longtime resident Suzette Shaw, was struck by a telling disparity the comparatively large number of portable toilets available on film sets in and around downtown Los Angeles.

Do you have an experience of homelessness to share with the Guardian? Get in touch

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jun/30/la-skid-row-homeless-toilet-access-report

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