The Unavoidable Problem of Human Waste

by | Jun 14, 2011 | Uncategorized

We have talked about the inordinate amount of time, energy, and financial resources that are spent on preventing benches from being slept on, or even sat on by people experiencing homelessness. The same brand of madness goes on over public bathrooms. The object is to make the homeless disappear by not providing any public toilets. Now, nobody can find a place to take a leak, and don’t even think about the other thing.

Someone with money can spend a few bucks in a store or restaurant, thus earning the right to perform natural functions in their facilities. Someone without money can hold it till they get home. Someone without a home can pee in an alley. What a brilliant solution — not! This is a lose-lose-lose outcome for everybody except business owners, who pick up some extra revenue by capitalizing on an unavoidable human need.

There is a terrific organization called STREATS — that stands for “Homeless Individuals Striving To Reach Educate And Transform Society’s Views on Homelessness.” Its media division has produced a video called “Gotta Go.” About half-an-hour long, it contains lively commentary with some humor from some very articulate people on the subject of going to the bathroom.

We have talked about the ongoing conflict between housed residents and “rubber tramps” in Venice, California. Last fall, for instance, two people were arrested for dumping human waste from a camper toilet into the street. The prosecution wanted to put them in jail for 90 days, but the judge has ordered a 36-months probation, to pay restitution, and to get the heck out of Venice.

There is reportedly a legal RV waste disposal facility 7.7 miles away from the area where the Venetian vehicle dwellers tend to cluster, and it costs $10, which sounds reasonable. But there might be many reasons why people living in a parked RV could not or would not vacate the space they had claimed. It’s a tough problem.

In a newsletter, a local citizen gloated over the fate of another pair of miscreants, a couple with a nine-year-old child. They too were charged with dumping waste in the street, and their RV was seized as evidence and towed to an impound yard many miles away in the San Fernando Valley to await a release from the police. The citizen says, “Beautiful evening for a walk to the SFV.”

This is from Dana Goodyear’s “Street Scene” column in The New Yorker, a while back, reporting on the Skid Row area of Los Angeles:

Plastic outhouses were removed because people were using them for sex and drugs and deals, and now there are several self-cleaning, European-style public toilets whose doors automatically open after an interval.

This controversy carried quite a history, as shown by a piece written by Penelope McMillan 20 years earlier, about a particular settlement known as the “Love Camp,” with a distinctly different reputation than those of other Skid Row encampments of the time. The journalist wrote,

Its residents, numbering around 50, rotate cooking, cleaning and security duties and share the $70-a-month rental cost of the portable toilets.

What portable toilets? The ones that were a symbol to the camp’s inhabitants that they would not sink beyond a certain level, and would indeed rise again to take their places in society. The portable toilets that were snatched, one day at dawn, by a city work crew. On the same day, the camp’s leadership kept an appointment with city officials to supposedly arrange a “model cleanup,” to be used as a prototype for future sweeps meant to clear out the homeless population. Strange that the city’s idea of a “cleanup” should begin with stealing the toilets.

Just last week, Kathleen Edgecomb reported from New London, Connecticut, about the shutting off of a new fountain on a downtown plaza because people experiencing homelessness used it to clean themselves. Actually, the last straw was when a passing cop discovered an intoxicated man washing solid matter out of his pants. The homeless were accused of using the whole area as an outdoor toilet. The reporter quotes Cathy Zall, director of a 50-bed shelter, who reminds us that being homeless is not a crime, and that the majority of the problems are caused by a very small minority.

In Eugene, Oregon, there are a few areas where a tiny fraction of the people who live in vehicles can safely park, and the city provides portable toilets and garbage collection. Apparently, some cities did get a clue, to some extent. It’s not rocket science. In fact, humankind has figured out how astronauts can go to the bathroom in zero gravity, for Pete’s sake. Surely we can think of ways for people to go to the bathroom in a modern city.

In Austin, Texas, an online commentator complains that the hundred or so people who are turned away from the ARCH shelter every night tend to hang around the neighborhood and relieve themselves in streets and alleys, and that Waller Creek is called a “giant alky toilet.”

It’s a strange situation. The city apparently paid a design firm a million and a half dollars to create a plan for renovating the creek and the downtown area surrounding it. Then it ditched the plan and is currently looking for another.

Here’s a thought. Whatever money there is for the new plan, take half of that and hire a student instead. (That’s what homeless people do to get their teeth fixed — let students practice on them.) Then take the other half and build some freakin’ restrooms. There you go — problem solved.


Source: “Venice RV Dumpers Sentenced,”, 10/13/10
Source: “Street Scene ,” The New Yorker, 05/05/08
Source: “Skid Row Camp’s Portable Toilets Swept Away,” LA Times, 03/11/87
Source: “Fountain incident puts spotlight on homeless issue,” The Day, 06/08/11
Source: “Will the Waller Creek Development be the death of Red River music scene?,” Yelp, 10/24/09
Source: “Private conservancy outlines plan to rescue, revive Waller Creek,”, 04/27/11
Screen capture of Public Toilet in Skid Row, Los Angeles, California, used under Fair Use: Reporting.