Handwashing stations such as this one at Civic Center have been installed in some locations around The City, but supervisors are calling for more due to the lack of public facilities caused by the coronavirus shutdown. (David Mamaril Horowitz/Special to The Examiner)

City shutdown means fewer restrooms available for homeless

Supervisors pushing for expansion of public facilities

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted the closure of public facilities like neighborhood libraries and parks, and made many public restrooms inaccessible.

In response, city supervisors are calling for San Francisco to deploy additional public toilets and handwashing stations for use by homeless residents.

“It’s unfathomable that during a public health crisis like this, we would shut off access to shelters, but not dramatically increase access to public restrooms and handwashing stations,” Supervisor Matt Haney said in a statement Friday.

In a resolution introduced Tuesday, Haney and other city supervisors are calling for San Francisco’s Departments of Public Works and Public Health to at least temporarily deploy more public restrooms and handwashing stations to thwart the spread of the novel coronavirus. If it is forwarded to the full Board of Supervisors without a committee reference, it could get passed as early as this coming Tuesday.

San Francisco currently provides more than 20 handwashing stations and 25 “pit stops” — public restrooms with cold running water for handwashing inside and attendants to keep them clean — for what Haney said was around 5,000 people living on the streets and other members of the public who use them. That’s at best one bathroom per 200 unsheltered residents.

Each pit stop costs around $85,000 per unit and $600,000 to $700,000 per year for staffing, maintenance and waste disposal.

However, Haney argues that during the coronavirus crisis, The City should provide one public restroom per 50 unsheltered residents for a total of at least 100 toilets citywide. That ratio would meet guidelines from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which recommends deploying at least one bathroom per 50 refugees in refugee camps during emergencies.

“Humans beings want the dignity of carrying out private functions in private, and the fact that there are thousands of people in San Francisco that don’t have access to that basic human dignity is a travesty,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition on Homelessness.

Haney, who has discussed the need for restrooms with DPW in recent weeks, says The City should deploy regularly cleaned porta-potties in areas where installed restrooms aren’t an option.

Public Works officials have voiced support for adding public toilets, but declined to give details on any plans in the works.

“The expansion of the available public toilets is an important citywide initiative, supported by Mayor Breed, the Board of Supervisors, the Department of Public Health, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, Public Works and others working on the COVID-19 response,” DPW spokesperson Rachel Gordon said. “This is a high-priority COVID-19 response project. We will have more specific information on the planned rollout soon.”

Haney said the additional public restrooms and handwashing stations would also serve ride-hail drivers and delivery workers.

“Not having the possibility to go to any restrooms is just horrendous,” said Edan Alva, an Alameda resident who drove for Lyft in the Bay Area for about five years before stopping last week. “When restrooms are broadly unavailable, it becomes doubly so.”

Last time he worked in San Francisco, Alva gave up trying to find a restroom and headed home, he said. He added that using a restroom on the job was already difficult because Lyft awards drivers new rides depending on how long their application is on. Turning off the application to find parking and use a restroom takes away from revenue that has already plummeted with the recent dip in demand.

“It’s always been an issue, but it was manageable, and this just exacerbated an existing situation,” he said.

Danielle E., who resides in a tent near City Hall, supported the addition of restrooms but said they should be permanent.

“(The City) doesn’t have a lot of places for homeless people to use bathrooms,” she said. “I think coronavirus maybe could be prevented because of people using their bathrooms properly.”

She said she has noticed a huge drop in the amount of human fecal matter on city streets and presumes it’s because the pit stops now have shorter lines. She suggested that The City should hire homeless residents to supervise new public bathrooms.

Kenny Jacobs, a homeless man who has lived in The City since 1996, said he expects Haney’s proposal to help if it passes.

“It’s a good thing because everyone’s starting to think, ‘Where do you go?’” he said.

In the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s densest neighborhoods, DPW announced five additional pit stops on Thursday, said Fernando Pujals, senior director of communications for the Tenderloin Community Benefits District.

There’s a definite need for protections against the virus for those residing in the neighborhood, he said.

“In the Tenderloin we have grossly inadequate possibilities for sanitation and hygiene services in relation to the significant number of people experiencing homelessness on the street sheltering in place in tents on the sidewalks,” Pujals said. “So we’ve called for the city to move swiftly and short of housing people in hotels, we think that we need open space with services and hygiene and sanitation provided for people sheltering in place.”

Such provisions include identifying open spaces that enable people to socially distance themselves while they receive adequate sanitation and hygiene services, he said.

And with the neighborhood’s intersection of significant populations like vulnerable seniors, people experiencing homelessness on the street and people who are newly housed, the Tenderloin represents a swathe of those vulnerable to COVID-19 citywide, Pujals said.

“We know that days matter with this pandemic, and every day we don’t do something is putting people in danger,” Pujals said.

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