Take Note, L.A.: Portland’s Fix to Skid Row’s Potty Problem

Take Note, L.A.: Portland’s Fix to Skid Row’s Potty Problem

Photo courtesy of Channone Arif
Photo courtesy of Channone Arif

This is downtown Los Angeles. Its skyline is often depicted in Hollywood flicks and is comprised of skyscrapers owned and/or occupied by some of the biggest names in corporate finance, banking, and law. At the start of my career, I worked in one of these buildings. During my lunch breaks, I used to take leisurely strolls to Macy’s Plaza on Seventh Street where I spent a bit of time browsing the racks.

As an Angeleno, I grew up knowing that Skid Row is home to a large homeless population, but I only had vague memories of ever visiting Skid Row. So during my lunchtime shopping excursions, it never occurred to me that if I continued about eight blocks further southeast on Seventh Street to San Pedro Street, I’d end up in the drastically different landscape of Skid Row. While Skid Row doesn’t have any official boundaries, it generally includes the area east of San Pedro Street, south of Third Street, west of Central Avenue, and north of Seventh Street.

In 2011, I began volunteering with Passporters to prepare and distribute brown bag lunches to the homeless on Skid Row.

Prepping sandwiches for distribution
The troops assembling on Skid Row for distribution
Photo courtesy of Passporters.net
Posing with a few of Skid Row’s homeless
Photo courtesy of Passporters.net

When I first started volunteering on Skid Row, aside from its proximity to corporate America, I was shocked by a number of things:

  1. There are A LOT of homeless living on the streets of Skid Row;
  2. There are A LOT of homeless WITH THEIR CHILDREN living on the streets of Skid Row;
  3. Many of the homeless suffer from drug addiction (once, we saw a barefoot pregnant woman walking down the street and she was totally high);
  4. The homeless who have mental health issues usually occupy smaller side streets away from the majority of the homeless population on and nearer to San Pedro Street; and
  5. The homeless don’t have access to restrooms so they use the restroom in the streets.

I’m not so shocked by the fact that the homeless urinate in the streets, but when I accidently kicked a piece of human feces while walking the streets to distribute food, it was right then that I was completely mortified by the realization that the homeless also defecate in the streets. But it makes sense considering that they have nowhere else to use the restroom. Because Skid Row is so blighted, there aren’t many fast food restaurants or businesses with restrooms where they can relieve themselves. And even if there were, it’s highly unlikely that business owners in the area would make their restrooms available to the non-paying public.

Each time I volunteer on Skid Row, I think about this bathroom issue. Yes, there are bigger issues like the fact that they don’t have homes or regular meals – I totally get it! But many organizations have donated tents to the homeless to offer them some sort of shelter from the elements and some degree of privacy. Many other organizations like Passporters offer meals. There’s even a local church on Skid Row that runs a free food pantry and serves the homeless three hot meals per day. But what about a fix for the homeless’ lack of public restrooms? Living on the streets is hard enough, but to have no choice but to defecate in the streets is utterly demoralizing. Is anyone thinking about that?!

Jave and I traveled to Portland, Oregon this past winter and took a tour of the city’s downtown area. During the tour, our guide pointed out the fact that Portland has a sizable homeless population. Yet, downtown Portland manages to remain relatively clean without a whiff of urine in the air and without a piece of human fecal matter in sight. So what does Portland have figured out that L.A. has yet to learn? Lo and behold – on the corner of SW Taylor near the Willamette River…

It’s called the Portland Loo, a bathroom that has a patented design for the outdoors. This fireproof and graffiti-proof public restroom has basic plumbing, no mirrors, and is made of steel. The Portland Loos, open 24/7-365, are cleaned twice each day and have proven to be a success in Portland. Our guide explained that the bars at the top and bottom of the structure give the police the ability to peep in to ensure that multiple people aren’t inside and to ensure that crimes aren’t being committed inside.  Also, hand-washing stations are located on the outside of the Loos in hopes that people won’t linger inside. According to the city’s website, there are currently six Loos around Portland, and the city hopes to sell the Loos to other cities.

For the sake of L.A.’s homeless, and for all of our sakes, actually, I sure hope that L.A. decides to purchase several of these Portland Loos.

For more details about the Portland Loos, visit http://www.portlandoregon.gov/bes/59293.



What do you think about the Portland Loos? What do you think about the issues that the homeless face in general?

  • It would be nice if more are offered, but I just wanted to point out that there are at least two public restrooms like these in Skid Row (there might be three). One’s on San Pedro St between 5th and 6th.

    • Dana Carmel

      I actually saw the one on San Pedro after writing this post. The design is a bit different though and doesn’t seem to have bars at the top and bottom that would allow passing police officers to peep inside. Thanks for pointing this out!

  • Hi Dana!

    Thanks for this article. I live @ 5th & San Pedro in Skid Row, and YES- local residents have in fact looked at this toilet as an option for the area. There are some challenges to getting these things on the streets- but there are a couple of very active working groups tackling this issue right now! If you would like to be involved in the meetings – please contact me. Volunteers are such a huge part of what makes Skid Row run. I would love for you to have a seat at the table if you would like to have one.

    Katherine McNenny
    Twitter: @mean2greenstrz

    • Dana Carmel

      Hi Katherine,

      Thanks so much for reading and reaching out to me about this important issue. I would love to attend a meeting and I’ll be emailing you for details. Thanks again!

  • Interesting that you brought out the matter of restrooms, as I feel like most people wouldn’t even take note of that. Aside from the issue of personal dignity, which is totally true, there’s also the serious matter of personal hygiene. Getting them proper facilities to wash up and stay as sanitary as possible after hey use the bathroom will help keep them healthy possible given the situation and minimize further unnecessary health risks. Great post.

    • Dana Carmel

      Absolutely true, JR! Hygiene is such a huge issue, and not being able to wash my hands and wash up regularly would really get to me. Thanks for your comment!


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