Juan Soto Prieto's job might be dirty at times, but last Friday afternoon, it wasn't thankless.
“Hallelujah, the port-o-potties are clean,” a woman sang as she pulled open the door to one of the units on East Village's 15th Street. Prieto, an employee with United Site Services, had just finished emptying the potties' holding tanks and disinfecting the interiors.
“Smells good, huh?” he asked.
“God bless you,” the woman said as she closed the door behind her.
The two port-o-potties sit just off a public sidewalk, on property owned by God's Extended Hand, a homeless-outreach ministry. The units went in on Sept. 2 and, since then, have been the receptacles for an estimated 17.5 tons of human waste and a few items of clothing that seem to get thrown into the mix when toilet paper runs out. Though not perfect—they're basic units with no flushing mechanism and no sinks—they're a stopgap solution to the lack of 24-hour public restrooms for East Village's homeless population, estimated at roughly 500.
“We need more of 'em,” said John, a homeless man who declined to give his last name. “It's a good thing…. When you gotta go, you gotta go—not on city streets.”
So far, a small nonprofit called The Isaiah Project has covered the cost of the toilets' rental and maintenance. Last May, CityBeat wrote about the project—the effort of David Ross (known as “The Water Man” because he distributes bottled water to the homeless); Bill Sharp, chief operating officer of local contractor Barnhart Co.; and Gerry Limpic, a marriage and family therapist.
Ross said the impetus for the project was a conversation he had with a woman who described the humiliation of having to crawl through the bushes near Interstate 5 to relieve herself out of public view.
Of all the things that come with being homeless, the woman told Ross, that was the most difficult. “My mother would be so ashamed of me,” she said.
Ross, Limpic and Sharp worked with city code-compliance officers to get the permits necessary to install the toilets on God's Extended Hand's property. They believed they had a guarantee from City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer, whose district includes East Village, that if a two-month trial period proved successful, the city would pick up the cost of the toilets—estimated to be about $1,500 per year, per toilet. The goal, Limpic said, is to increase the number of toilets to 10.
The trial period ended more than three months ago, though, and The Isaiah Project is still footing the bill; United Site Services has, at no cost, upped the pumping and cleaning to five days a week from three, and a couple of weeks ago, two more toilets appeared near 16th and K streets. Prieto said he's been emptying that pair as well. A sign on the toilets said they were placed there courtesy of an anonymous donor.
“The plan was, the assurance was, the encouragement was that after two months, if they were relatively successful, there would be money available,” Ross said at a Jan. 20 City Council meeting. Battered and bandaged from an attempted carjacking on Jan. 16, Ross told council members that when two police officers came to his apartment to take a statement, once they realized who he was, they thanked him for the port-o-potties. “Police who came to my apartment the other day, they use them,” Ross said.
More public restrooms have long been cited as a need Downtown—not just for the homeless but also for tourists and itinerant city workers. But an ordinance that forbids advertising in the public right-of-way has kept San Diego from installing the sort of public-access toilets that are found in cities like San Francisco, L.A. and New York, where advertising on the restrooms' exteriors covers the cost of installation and maintenance. A 2001 memo from then City Attorney Casey Gwinn advised against amending the ordinance, arguing that it would force the city to allow other kinds of advertising in public space.
For now, the port-o-potties appear to be the cheapest and best—perhaps only—solution. Ross has been speaking at Tuesday City Council meetings for several weeks; at this week's meeting, for the first time, he got a public promise from Faulconer to work on finding a solution to keep the port-o-potties in place. Councilmember Marti Emerald told Ross that she'd docket a discussion of the toilets at the City Council's Public Safety and Neighborhood Services committee.
“They're a great success,” Emerald said of the potties, “and we need to find a way of keeping them there.”