The city has invested $25K in a program that will test a 24-hour bathroom downtown
When City Councilwoman Pamela Comstock saw a man by the shopping area at River Street and Highway 1 drop his pants and defecate in public, she knew she wasn’t going to be able to forget it—and that she didn’t want anyone else in Santa Cruz to have to see the same thing.
“It’s disturbing,” Comstock says. “It’s something you don’t recover from.”
That’s why in the thick of budget cutbacks, Comstock swam against the tide, working to get the city to spend serious money on getting restrooms downtown, despite prohibitive costs. As it stands now, there is a three-month trial program for one 24-hour bathroom in the parking garage at Soquel and Front streets at a cost of $25,000. There is also a portable john at Front and Laurel streets, for which the city funds some of the cleaning expense.
Comstock’s motion passed the council unanimously, and the city has the summer to see if having 24-hour bathrooms is cost effective. As much as people don’t prefer to think about human waste, it’s crucial to the health and safety of downtown, say visitors and officials.
“I was just telling my friends today that it felt like I walked around forever to find a bathroom,” says Sebastian Padua, 20, of San Ramon.
“I had no idea there were public restrooms downtown.”
Denver native Neil Warren, 29, adds: “There are times I avoid coming downtown even when I want to. There’s always a parking struggle or the thought of searching for a place to use the bathroom. I think they should make a bigger effort in informing people these bathrooms exist.”
Not everyone, however, sees the need.
“I’d rather see the city spending money on remedies for the homeless, jobs, housing, feeding, than spend it on bathrooms attracting them here,” says John Sterling, 54, a local guitar teacher.
The city has spent more than $250,000 remodeling the parking lot bathrooms, making them bright, graffiti-proof and seemingly indestructible. The doors remain open, and users can be seen from the outside to discourage drug use or other criminal activity. There have been no complaints about the design, says Janice Bisgaard, spokeswoman for the Public Works Department.
The city has another program offering businesses $400 per month to let people use their bathrooms. So far, only two do so—Bookshop Santa Cruz and Cafe Gratitude. Others open restrooms just for customers.
While most people are respectful of the bathrooms at Bookshop, owner Casey Coonerty Protti says there are several expensive incidents of vandalism a year that burn through the funds.
Finding a place to potty overnight has been an even bigger problem. The garage bathrooms have traditionally closed from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and the city’s staff worries about the expense of keeping them open all night long. They say the bathrooms need to be cleaned every two hours.
“The bars let out at 2 a.m. and where are people supposed to go?” asks Comstock. “That’s why the parking garages smell like piss.”
But Chip, the president of the downtown association who goes by only his first name, is skeptical.
“If people are leaving the bar, they can use the bathroom there before they go,” he says. “Do you really think a bathroom in a garage is going to make a difference? I think they’ll still pee in the parking lots.”
Chip says the people who really need bathrooms open all night are the homeless. Homeless advocate Brent Adams has made bathrooms a big issue, and for the first time his group is working for the same cause as Take Back Santa Cruz, the anti-crime group co-founded by Comstock, with whom homeless activists often feud.
Wheel Works gave Adams a closet to store cleaning supplies he bought with $300 of donations. Eight volunteers clean the port-a-potty at Front and Laurel streets on the days the city couldn’t do it. India Joze donates hot water. The city is now paying to clean it once a day, Mondays through Fridays. The volunteers, including City Councilmember Micah Posner, do it on the weekends.
“First of all, it’s for the basic sanitation of our downtown core,” says Adams. “We have a homeless population; we have an after-bar population peeing everywhere. But really, it’s to offer basic dignity to people who have no access to public restrooms. There are only two locations the city offers. It’s basic dignity. People have to go to the bathroom, then the city should offer plentiful places for that to happen. I think that’s where activists like us and Take Back Santa Cruz have some overlapping agreement. We believe in dignity, and Pamela Comstock believes in not having open excrement. We both believe in safety and cleanliness. This is one of the basic ways to keep the city safe and clean for everybody.”
The city has taken another step toward cleaning up the human and dog waste problem downtown. It contracts with Shane Klein, who operates a poop-scooping business called Uncle Poop. Klein patrols the city picking up excrement, and also responds to calls from businesses and residents. He does his patrol on a bicycle with his scoopers and cleaning supplies on a trailer.
Klein says he’s picked up more than 3,000 poops in his first year dealing with the city. He also cleans up yards, operating through his site unclepoop.com.
In May, the city paid him $50 a day for 10 patrols and $225 for nine calls. He picked up 14 piles of human feces from places on and around Pacific Avenue. He picked up 169 dog poops in the same time period all over downtown. He says that after 10 years working in pet care, he can definitely tell the difference.
“I love this city, and its feels good to know that I might help prevent a visitor to Santa Cruz from stepping in a ‘land mine,’ or having to see a huge puddle of vomit outside the ice cream shop,” says Klein, who moved here from Peoria, Illinois in 2010 with his wife and three boys. “I do occasionally get a big thanks from someone, which feels really good, but honestly it’s enough just to know that I’m providing a service that makes a difference.”
Comstock says his service is a big relief.
“We hear about it from business owners,” says Comstock. “They come to work and there is a big pile of excrement in their doorway. It’s a big problem for the owners and for people who want to come downtown to shop. If you see people openly defecating, that’s a Third World problem. It’s absurd to see that happening in our community.”
Comstock has studied what other cities do, and has seen that some put up artwork in the restrooms with eyes in the pictures, of people or dogs. They say that discourages people from abusing them.
Councilmember Richelle Noroyan wonders if the city could follow what she saw in Europe, where there were attendants in public bathrooms by the Eiffel Tower and the Coliseum in Rome. Patrons were charged a euro to use them, but if someone couldn’t afford it, they were still allowed to go, she says.
“That would be expensive, but it seems to work,” Noroyan says. “Going to the bathroom is a basic function every human being needs to do, tourists, homeless or housed.”
In Santa Cruz, public toilets have been clogged with Coke cans and sinks have been pulled off walls, something that concerns the city’s staff and council. The council voted unanimously to pay for the three-month trial. Now, says Comstock, the public has to make it work.
“Hopefully, they will be respected,” says Comstock. “One major, expensive incident could ruin it for everyone. I’m hoping that by opening up the facility we can find a way to encourage respectful behavior.”
PHOTO: City Councilman Micah Posner volunteers to clean the city’s only porta potty at Front and Laurel streets. CHIP SCHEUER