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Occupied: San Francisco: Understanding the City Through its Toilets. Yes, Really. 

Wednesday, Mar 19 2014
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In a city bedeviled by change, the French toilets seemed like a miracle. Tourists, homeless people, and shoppers on Market Street would all pee in the same hole, and JCDecaux would deputize its own maintenance crew to clean up every morning. The French company charged nothing for its boxy toilets, which resembled big oil drums or artillery bunkers, because they also served as advertising kiosks. The company rented that signage and pocketed the revenue.

But it didn't take long for a foreign toilet with lofty aspirations and good business sense to fall into ill repute. The JCDecauxs became known as "20 minute hotels" for prostitutes and drug users. Vagrants slept inside; addicts wedged knives beneath the doors to keep cops from getting in.

"I've actually seen shit on the floors," a homeless vet named Peter Skelley says, rattling off the other iniquities he's witnessed in those shiny European johns: people cooking up dope or shooting heroin.

Granted, his horror stories pale in comparison to a JCDecaux maintenance man at Fifth and Market streets, who easily recalls the worst thing he's seen: "A dead body. From a drug overdose."

The JCDecaux toilets have come to represent a form of cheap civic beneficence — a way for San Francisco to feel it was aiding its downtrodden at a time of budget austerity. And their structures convey as much: big, can-shaped bunkers with glossy panes for advertisers.

It only took a small margin of the population to ruin the democratic restroom model for everybody else. But, as is often the case in San Francisco politics, that small sliver wielded a lot of influence. Toilets quickly came to illustrate all manner of livability issues, and the utopian dream of tourists sharing clean, cottagey space with their homeless counterparts withered away. The restrooms of San Francisco had failed as a utopian experiment; they were commandeered by a small minority but inaccessible to the masses.

And still, the streets grew fouler.


Erstwhile Supervisor Chris Daly never asked to become a stalwart for public defecation, but in 2002, he became a defender of shit-by-association.

"It wasn't a position I wanted to defend," he says, recalling how he landed on the wrong side of the public poop debate, and how it soiled his subsequent political campaigns. Daly felt he had no choice. Another former supervisor, Tony Hall, had drafted a comprehensive plan to combat homelessness downtown, which included an ordinance against defecating in public.

"You couldn't even walk along any of the downtown streets without smelling urine," Hall says, explaining that the city had padlocked many of its neighborhood restrooms to cut costs and save manpower — even if, as Hall argued, it costs just as much to power-wash the streets.

Restroom austerity begot filthier streets, Hall notes, but it was hard to crack down on the itinerant defecators if you weren't giving them a place to do their business in the first place. Daly certainly wasn't having it.

"He would push back on anything that counted as discipline for the homeless," Hall says, recalling that the two supervisors eventually compromised, and co-authored an ordinance with then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom. It included a fine for anyone caught copping a squat, and a provision requiring the Department of Public Works to keep up-do-date web listings of available restroom facilities.

"If you give [the homeless] a place to go, they should use it," Hall surmises. "And if they don't, they should be penalized. It's an affront to people using the public streets."

Robert Freedman, a 50-year-old homeless man in SOMA, might say it's not so simple. Freedman's worst call-of-nature calamity happened last year, in the dead of night, in an alley on Natoma Street. He'd just finished relieving himself when a beat cop sneaked up behind him.

"He said, 'Clean up that shit or you go to jail,'" Freedman recalls, his eyes narrowing angrily. "I said, 'How am I gonna do that? I don't got a broom or nothing. And he said, 'Use your shirt.'"

Freedman's altercation with the cop occurred just blocks away from the coin-operated JCDecaux toilet at Powell Street. But in a neighborhood where the public toilets are just squalid enough that most homeless people say they'd prefer to pee between cars, it didn't seem that shocking. During the day, Freedman uses the bathrooms at Hospitality House Sixth Street Drop-in Center, one of several Hospitality Houses scattered throughout the Tenderloin. But those close at 5 or 7 p.m., he says, and at night he has fewer options. Freedman stuffs wads of toilet paper in his pockets, just in case.

"It's obviously an issue not only for the homeless people, but for people watching the homeless defecate in their doorways," Hospitality House's development director Daniel Hlad says, adding that he and other service providers have no way to fix the problem. "We can't stay open 24 hours," Hlad explains. "If we had unlimited funding I'm sure we could. But given our current capacity, this is what we can do."


Eventually, Hall and other politicians managed to persuade the city to reopen many of its park restrooms, which helped curtail waste problems while shunting the burden over to San Francisco Rec & Park. Thus, another agency with limited resources was dispatched to manage the city's most well-trafficked and wretched lavatories. Hall deemed it a common-sense decision, but he recalls that some Rec & Park bureaucrats cried foul. They didn't have enough personnel to beautify johns that might have languished since the Depression, let alone clean up the ones serving high-density areas like Portsmouth Square.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Bio:
Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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