Advocates Beg for Toilets, Running Water; Deputy Mayor Cites Cost and “Challenges” Like Vandalism and “Theft of Hand Sanitizer”

The city is paying $35,000 apiece for six portable toilet sites, the deputy mayor revealed Wednesday.

Human shit clinging sliding down the street and squishing under a nonprofit director’s shoe as she walked to her car in Pioneer Square. Women bleeding through their clothes because they lack menstrual supplies and a place to get clean. Street-level social service workers forced to pee in alleys because all the restrooms are locked.

These are some of the stories front-line workers told the city council on Wednesday during a meeting of the city council’s homelessness committee. Committee chair Andrew Lewis called the meeting in response to the lack of clean, accessible places for people experiencing homelessness to use the restroom and wash their hands during the COVID crisis—a shortage that, as I first reported,  has contributed to an outbreak of hepatitis A in Ballard.

Dawn Whitson, an outreach worker for REACH – Evergreen Treatment Services who works in Georgetown, said she has resorted to handing out toilet paper to homeless people in the area, because the restroom at the Georgetown Playfield—which she said is open only sporadically—often lacks both toilet paper and soap. “I actually have been out in the field and have had to use the restroom in several different alleys myself” since all the businesses have closed, Whitson said.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job.

Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

As streets, parks, and playfields have become restrooms of last resort, Whitson said the city has stopped talking to social service providers about whether and when more portable toilets and accessible hand-washing stations are coming. “We’ve managed to develop a field hospital [in CenturyLink Field], and we haven’t been able to get any port-a-potties and we haven’t been able to get any answers,” she said. “I have pointedly asked, ‘Who do we need to call to express our concerns, and I was pretty much stonewalled and told that there was no one I could speak to.”

Casey Sixkiller, Durkan’s deputy mayor in charge of homelessness, launched into his prewritten presentation not by responding to the advocates’ concerns, but by praising Human Services Department employees for “putting their lives at risk” to stand up hygiene stations and asserting that “at least 127” park restrooms are currently open.

The city plans to add eight more port-a-potties to the six locations it announced last week, Sixkiller said, but it would be prohibitively expensive to add many more. Each portable toilet, he said, costs $35,000 a month, a price tag that some council members said sounded like price gouging to them. Honey Bucket does not have an exact price list on its website. In 2017, Willamette Week in Portland reported that the company’s prices had skyrocketed during the solar eclipse—from $140 a week to a whopping $650 per unit.

According to council member Lisa Herbold, as of late February—around the time the first US death from COVID was reported in a Kirkland nursing home—executive-branch staffers were still requesting “basic information about what a mobile pit stop was.”

Sixkiller said he didn’t “know that it’s price gouging” for Honey Bucket to charge what the “market conditions” will allow. “We are competing with everybody else for those resources,” Sixkiller said. “It’s just simple supply and demand.”

The deputy mayor also cited other “challenges” the city has faced in standing up portable toilets and handwashing stations, including “vandalism” and “theft of hand sanitizer” by homeless people—a comment that brought to mind reports of desperate people “looting” food in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Council president Lorena Gonzalez said whatever the price, “when we are talking about 14 toilets”—the six existing sites, plus eight new ones—”for upwards of 6,000 people, I just feel like we aren’t having a conversation based in reality in terms of what the actual need is.”

Council members also pressed the deputy mayor to explain why the mayor’s office hadn’t made an effort to obtain mobile hygiene trailers, which were funded last November, before the crisis. A city auditor’s report in 2018 recommended that the city purchase  “mobile pit stop” trailers, which include sinks, restrooms, and showers, and the city allocated $1.3 million to buy five of them last year. But the mayor’s office didn’t act, and by the time the COVID crisis hit and the city started looking for trailers in earnest, other cities (and King County) had snapped them up.

According to council member Lisa Herbold, as of late February—around the time the first US death from COVID was reported in a Kirkland nursing home—executive-branch staffers were still requesting “basic information about what a mobile pit stop was.”

The deputy mayor also cited other “challenges” the city has faced in standing up portable toilets and handwashing stations, including “vandalism” and “theft of hand sanitizer” by homeless people—a comment that brought to mind reports of desperate people “looting” food in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Sixkiller disputed the city’s price tag, which the city budget office validated as part of the budget process last year, but tacitly acknowledged that the city waited too long to start looking for hygiene trailers. “As you can imagine, everyone across the country is trying to purchase port-a-potties and other things. The best we could do right now is get our hands on two rental units,” he said. The two temporary rental trailers are supposed to open soon at Seattle Center and in Pioneer Square.

Advocates are pushing the city to partially reopen public buildings such as libraries and community centers, which have been closed for nearly a month, so that people can use the restroom and wash their hands, a solution that would give people access to warm running water and soap and toilets that flush, likely at much lower cost than $35,000 pit toilets.

Alison Eisinger, with the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, suggested Wednesday that the city reopen libraries, community centers, and pools (and call on private gyms to do the same) so that everyone living outdoors could have access to restroom within a half-mile of where they are staying . “It’s quite evident that one of the things that must happen immediately is thoughtfully and strategically to reopen and staff public buildings, because the loss of community centers, libraries, coffee shops, and other places where people could get themselves clean is posing severe health hazards to our most vulnerable folks and to the population as a whole,” she said.

Sharon Lee, the executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), says she has asked the city to provide funding so that the Urban Rest Stop in Ballard, an area where many homeless people have set up camp, can be open more one eight-hour shift a day. The Urban Rest Stop provides showers, toilets, and laundry machines to people experiencing homelessness. In addition, Lee says the city “has a lot of shower facilities they can open, so I do not understand why they are not opening the pool showers and restrooms, especially since pools are closed.”

Sixkiller said reopening public buildings might be a bad idea, since library and community center staffers are not trained in trauma-informed care—a strange objection, given that libraries and community centers are the places where homeless people use the restroom and hang out during normal times, and their staff have more experience than most city employees in working directly with people experiencing homelessness. Oddly, Sixkiller also suggested that council members encourage private businesses in their districts to reopen so that homeless people can use their restrooms, a suggested the council appeared to roundly reject.

15 thoughts on “Advocates Beg for Toilets, Running Water; Deputy Mayor Cites Cost and “Challenges” Like Vandalism and “Theft of Hand Sanitizer””

  1. Maybe the navigation team can give people individual hand sanitizer bottles and their own rolls of toilet paper. Also, can the city open up the park bathrooms so that people can use them? Is it ok to think outside the box?

  2. Theft of toilet paper and hand sanitizer is a real thing, people after all are human beings with basic needs. Those with resources load up their shopping carts with what they consider essential good, and those with fewer resources get them elsewhere. It is a problem to solve. Let’s also remember that the real heroes in this story are the navigation workers. May they feel supported and valued for their work.

Comments are closed.