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Southern Humboldt considers public restrooms as transient tensions mount

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"We didn't want this to be a polarizing thing in the community," says Robert Froelich.

Yet the idea of a public restroom in Garberville has become — and has long been — exactly that. Froelich is a member of the Garberville-Redway Public Restroom Working Group (GRPRWG), which has met every month for the past three years to discuss installing the unincorporated area's only public restroom. Now the group seems within sight of its goal. The Garberville Town Square organization recently approved the construction of a public restroom in the middle of town, and GRPRWG held a fundraiser to bankroll the project. The group's goal is to have the facility ready within a year.

But the project is not without its detractors. Despite the fact that public urination and defecation is a top complaint of those who speak publicly on the area's homeless population, GRPRWG has struggled to find support. The group held professionally facilitated community roundtables throughout the process and presented at the Rotary, chamber of commerce, local hospital and school. Some were in support of the endeavor, but public concern kept circling back to the same issue: Would installing restrooms enable the area's homeless?

Consider the back-and-forth comments on a recent Facebook post by Southern Humboldt blogger Kym Kemp about the idea.

Will these "public restrooms" have showers for the transients too? Asks one man.

"Showers would be a great idea. Free laundry too," Chimes in a restroom advocate.

"Just title them what they are, 'Transient Restrooms,' the local public isn't going to use them."

"Is there a drop box for heroin needles in them too?"

"A needle drop box is an awesome idea. Keep those sharps off the ground, and out of the park!"

"The ... shitters will not even use them after two weeks. Stop pretending we are talking about normal humans. ... They are mental patients and/or brain dead Tweakers."

The thread goes on to include photos of toilet paper and human feces left in the local park, accusations of xenophobia, an argument about what truly makes a "local" and reviews of public restrooms in Eureka, Ferndale and Field's Landing.

"People have a lot of opinions," says Froelich. "There is this idea that bathrooms attract homeless people. We couldn't find any kind of evidence. This is just an idea people have about travelers, homeless. Over several years here, the conversation has moved beyond that."

The idea of a public restroom in Southern Humboldt has been fraught with challenges for several years. Because it is unincorporated, funding for such an endeavor would require private donations. A homeless advocate in the area, Debra Carey, used her personal money to rent a Porta-Potty for Garberville's Veteran's Park in 2011, only to have the facility removed by the Humboldt County Public Works Department because she had failed to get a permit for it. Four years later, the idea of a public potty is again throwing local opinion on the homeless issue into sharp relief.

The 2015 Point In Time Count estimates there are 170 homeless people in the Southern Humboldt area, but many believe that's an underestimate, especially in the late summer and fall months when people arrive to work in the region's marijuana industry. Many complain of panhandlers, trash, theft, crime and drug abuse. Recently, locals began patrolling the sidewalks at dusk, picking up trash and talking with transients, encouraging them to move on. The patrol troubles Carey and others, who equate it with harassment. Beth Bennett-Allen, a Garberville restaurant owner, says she supports the new patrols and other efforts to reduce the area's visible homeless population.

"We've just experienced an influx of people who are trashing the river and our town," says Bennett-Allen, who carries a Taser, which she says she has brandished several times at people loitering in front of her business. She was among many back-to-the-landers who moved to the region in the 1970s and were received with hostility by the "rednecks" in the then-conservative town. Many of her cohort lived in tents. The local laundromat had a sign that said, "don't bathe babies in the sink." Now a land and business owner, Bennett-Allen says she appreciates the irony, but says the "sense of entitlement" present in the current wave of travelers differentiates them from her own generation.

"I understand the position of coming here and feeling like an outsider. ... We didn't come here with the you-owe-us-anything attitude," she says.

Elsewhere in Humboldt County, attitudes surrounding public restrooms and their ability to empower the "entitled" are mixed. The city of Arcata installed a so-called "Portland Loo" last December. Named after their city of origin, the bathrooms are easily cleaned, stainless steel structures made by Madden Fabrication.

Arcata Environmental Services Director Mark Andre says the loo has turned out to be a "nice facility," especially in terms of durability. Downtown businesses have experienced fewer issues with "non-patrons," and the restroom in general has been "a positive addition." As for the claim that the restroom has attracted more people to the nearby Veteran's Memorial Park, Andre calls this a "false correlation."

"It was already a hangout spot, I don't think it caused it," he says.

Andre estimates the 2015 maintenance costs for the facility to top out between $15,000 and $25,000, a figure that includes twice-daily visits from city staff. GRPRWG hasn't yet established a budget for these costs, but Froelich estimates they will run around $10,000 annually. Arcata's Portland Loo cost the city around $115,000; GRPRWG plans to build its own version at a reduced cost.

Self-cleaning bathrooms have been installed in other cities with large homeless populations, such as San Francisco and Seattle. Seattle's $5 million project ended in dismal failure, as the bathrooms became trashed and unusable, and the city ended up selling the facilities on eBay at a loss after four years. The self-cleaning mechanisms in San Francisco's bathrooms also malfunction due to trash clogs.

But the idea of public restrooms as a civic responsibility continues to hold emotional weight with a surprising spectrum of people — including those responsible for maintaining them.

Ferndale City Manager Jay Parrish says that, although that town's 33-year-old restrooms do "have problems from time to time" and require a "substantial cost," the burden they take off the business district has "seemed to be worth it to the city council." Fortuna recently invested in waterless urinals for two of its restrooms, which will save an estimated 80,000 gallons of water annually. Mike Johnson, the city's general services superintendent, says the restrooms do incur the occasional issue with vandalism but they are worth continued investment. Johnson first encountered the waterless urinals while visiting the Napa Valley.

"If they're good enough to be in a Michelin Star-rated restaurants, they're good enough to be in Newburg Park," he says.

By far the most benighted public facilities must be those along the Eureka waterfront. Parks and Recreation Director Miles Slattery says his employees regularly deal with inappropriate uses of public facilities, including drug use and trash.

"You wouldn't believe what we encounter in our restrooms," he says. "It's not for the faint of heart. Things that are supposed to end up in the toilet don't." The city recently replaced the locks on its restrooms near the Old Town Gazebo with less expensive models because they were repeatedly pried open after hours. (City employees clean and lock the bathrooms at dusk.)

"I can't tell you how many times we open and find someone passed out in there," Slattery says.

Despite these challenges, Slattery does not believe eliminating public facilities is a solution. Instead, he says the city is working to attract "appropriate use" to the areas, holding events that bring more public presence to public parks, with the idea that this will discourage bad behavior. A similar philosophy informed a recent event in Garberville that encouraged people to come and "occupy" the Town Square for family oriented fun.

"I think giving up is the wrong thing to do," says Slattery. "If I took away every bench or trash can I got a complaint about, we wouldn't have any left."

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