Author: Joe Brizzolara / Jan 31, 2018
In most neighborhoods of Los Angeles, the opening of a public restroom is unlikely to get much media attention. Skid Row, a 50 block district in the eastern section of downtown, is unlike most neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Of the counties 57,794 homeless people, Skid Row is home to 4,633 of them. That means that while accounting for only .0001% of the county’s total land area, Skid Row holds about 8% percent of the homeless population.
An audit done by the Los Angeles Central Providers Collaborative, Skid Row Community Residents and Partners found that the number of available restrooms for Skid Row’s homeless population is less than that offered in a Syrian refugee camp. The audit, titled “No Place to Go”, found between the hours of 6pm and 6am there are 9 restrooms available for some 1,777 people living on the streets of Skid Row. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees sets their sanitation standards at 1 toilet for every 20 people. At night, Skid Row is short of the UN’s sanitation standards by 80 toilets. During the day, when homeless shelters release their occupants and the number of people on the streets increases, that number jumps and Skid Row falls short of the standard by 164 toilets.
A lack of bathrooms and hygiene facilities is believed to have been a huge factor in a recent outbreak of Hepatitis A. On September 9th, 2017, the LA County Department of Public Health declared an outbreak of the disease. The disease affects the liver and can be severe. It is transmitted by fecal contact with an infected person. The biggest affected community are the homeless, followed by service providers for the homeless. From their statement: “The hepatitis A virus can spread when a person does not properly wash their hands after going to the bathroom or changing diapers… People who are homeless are at higher risk because they face challenges to maintaining good hygiene.”
The city responded by opening the Skid Row ReFresh Spot. Located on Crocker Street between 5th and 6th, the Skid Row ReFresh Spot offers 8 restrooms and 6 showers broken up into 2 separate facilities for men and women. It’s staffed full-time with a mix of volunteers and paid staff who are both male and female. The staff includes Skid Row community members and residents. The space is inviting with plants, music, and a seating area for residents to lounge and socialize. The Skid Row ReFresh Spot is open 32 hours a week from 5 to 1pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 1 to 9pm on Thursdays, and on Saturdays from 9am to 5pm.
Evans Clark manages the facility and is an employee of Homeless Healthcare Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization that has been contracted by the city to provide the service. “I’m from the Skid Row area and they needed someone from the Skid Row Community to kinda come in and oversee the project”.
“Daily we provide showers, we provide shower kits, they can use the toilets.” He said that on average, they see 75 to 80 people. On the whole, they’ve received positive feedback. Clark says they plan to eventually expand the hours and also add three new trailers. “One’s gonna be for showers only. The other one’s gonna be for the bathrooms. And one’s for the washers and dryers.” He thinks that once this expansion is complete, there will be constant traffic of visitors.
The city has invested 1.8 million into the project. “We have to do everything possible to help people stay healthy and live with the dignity that each one of us deserves,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti at the opening. “Homelessness is a crisis of housing and public health — and the ReFresh Spot shows that when the community and City work together, we can help the most vulnerable Angelenos meet their most basic human needs.”
“People from the mayor’s office attends our meetings,” Clark says. The city interfaces with the center daily: “Emails, meetings, phone calls, text messages.”
Councilmember Jose Huizar introduced the motion to secure funding for the project, pulling from the city’s general fund and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s budget. Huizar represents the 14th District which includes Skid Row. “This will be more than a hygiene center,” Huizar said. “Our aim is to give the residents of Skid Row a sense of hope and dignity that better days are possible while we also take action to protect them from the spread of Hepatitis A. Today is not the end of our efforts. It is just the beginning, but it represents a critical first-step.”
Louise Mbella “Sinai”, known in the community as ‘Frenchy’, is a community organizer and advocate for homeless rights. She contributed to the bathroom audit and was involved in the planning of the Skid Row ReFresh Spot. “We wanted to make sure that the concept, everything behind the hygiene center… respect[s] the lives of the people unsheltered [and] on the streets.” According to “Sinai”, the city was sensitive to the Skid Row community’s discomfort with officials and law enforcement in handling security. “They picked a security company that’s been dealing with communities that are in need, that are poverty stricken… They know to de-escelate not just say ok put your hands up. [They know to] not use physical force unnecessarily.”
Not everyone is so pleased with the Skid Row ReFresh Spot however. General Dogon is a human rights organizer with the Los Angeles Community Action Network. LA CAN is known to butt heads with City officials and the L.A.P.D. over what they perceive as a long history of neglect and abuse towards Skid Row’s homeless on the part of the state. At the opening, General Dogon ripped up a certificate given to him by the city as appreciation for LA CAN’s involvement in the creation of the Skid Row ReFresh Spot. “This award is just like the mayor and his cronies. Worthless” he said while standing at a podium inches away from Garcetti. “These toilets you bringing, it’s 10 years too late and it’s 300 too short!”
General Dogon spoke with The Sprawl and added context to this last point. In 2012, he points out, the LA County Department of Public Health issued a report ordering the city to clean up Skid Row. One of their recommendations was more public restrooms and handwashing stations to deal with piles of human waste and other biohazards that were accumulating throughout Skid Row.
“According to the United Nations, we needed 382 toilets to get out of the crisis situation that we in,” says General Dogon. “The Mayor’s office thought that delivering 6 temporary toilets in a toilet crisis where almost 50 times that much is needed, that that would be acceptable… I am not impressed.”