Marcia Tauber, Potty Talk 2: Opportunity Costs – November 14, 2011

Monday, November 14, 2011

The problems are properly manageable

My husband and I own a business on Arcata’s Plaza. I want to explain why I think it’s important for us to put a public restroom downtown.

Tourism has become increasingly important as a source of income to Arcata’s small businesses. It is hard to see how we can call ourselves a tourist friendly city, when we leave visitors without a place to take care of their most basic needs. The only place a visitor can count on being able to use a toilet is in a restaurant, and then only if they pay for food.

Most businesses downtown are not able to allow even paying customers to use their restrooms. Restrooms in most businesses exist for employees. In addition to the obvious, they are frequently used to store inventory and supplies. They are unsafe for use by others because they require stepping over and around boxes, desks and other “not suitable for customers” obstacles. I used to allow my customers to use our restrooms, but was threatened with a lawsuit by a customer who lost her footing and fell in our stairwell on her way to the bathroom. My insurance company paid the claim and raised my rates. I no longer allow customers to use our restrooms.

And what of people who cannot afford to buy food in a restaurant in order to use the toilet? It isn’t like this is optional. It isn’t like a shower or a place to clean your clothes. We’re talking about a biological imperative. I ask you, what would you do if you needed to go and could not find a place to do it responsibly? What if your child needed to go and there were no toilets available? Really, what would you do? You would do what our traveling population does. You would go where you could find an out of the way place. You would go in alleys and flower beds; you would go in the bushes. Maybe, if you had a piece of paper available you would pick it up when you were done and throw it in a garbage can. If you didn’t have that piece of paper available, you would probably leave it where it landed. Like I said, it isn’t optional. You can’t just decide not to do it because it isn’t convenient for you or the community in which you find yourself. As one person at the City Council meeting so eloquently said, “If you don’t give them a toilet, the whole city becomes the toilet.”

It will cost money to build a public restroom, yes. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. And with appropriate community buy in, it is possible that money could be raised to defray some of that expense. We have had a couple of failed attempts at providing public restrooms in the past, yes. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done properly… it only means it wasn’t done properly in the past.  They will be vandalized, yes. But a well thought-out design, built with materials that are made to withstand that kind of abuse, can stand up to being vandalized. A public restroom doesn’t have to be warm and cozy. It doesn’t have to have mirrors and towel dispensers hanging on the wall. It doesn’t have to have doors that close all the way from ceiling to floor. It doesn’t have to have sinks large enough to bathe or wash clothes in. And it certainly doesn’t have to be made of plastic and installed in some out of the way remote location where monitoring is difficult. I assert that the problems that rose during Arcata’s few failed experiments with public restrooms in the past were both predictable and preventable.

Other communities also have a large homeless population and they manage to keep and maintain public restrooms. There will be costs to clean and maintain it. But how much that maintenance will cost will depend a lot on how it is built. And there is also a cost to NOT having public restrooms. We are paying that cost now. We are just accounting for it differently and it is born by some businesses and residents disproportionately.

We have a substantial number of residents and travelers with mental illness or substance abuse or frequently both. The fact that we don’t give them an appropriate place to go to the toilet doesn’t mean they don’t go. It means rather than everyone sharing the burden of providing a responsible way to do it, the burden falls on the business owners whose businesses back up to alleys to clean the mess at their back doors. Or it falls on the maintenance staff at the parks or churches or gardens to clean it up. And any homemaker will tell you it is easier to clean up a mess that is concentrated in one place than one that is spread out all over town.

I am heartened by the council forming a committee of interested participants: hopefully it will include business owners, city staff and organizations that serve the homeless. Let them look at what has been done in the past, both in Arcata and elsewhere and why it did or didn’t work. Let them come up with a plan for building it and funding it. Let them explore what other communities have done to keep the cost of maintaining their public restrooms down. We aren’t alone in dealing with this issue. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. What we shouldn’t do is pretend that if we ignore it, the problem will just go away. It won’t. It is a biological imperative not a choice. It will just show up on our streets and alleys, on our lawns and playgrounds. We can either deal with it responsibly or we can continue walking in it.

Marcia Tauber

Simply Macintosh