You Gotta Fight, for Your Right

to potty.

Don’t worry.  This isn’t a personal post (gross!), it’s about the public potty.  Not just any public potty, the Portland public potty.

Recently, Portland has installed a public toilet that is more successful than those in other major cities.  Successful meaning it stays functional and available to the public with minimal interruptions from vandals or without being converted into a more permanent home, laundromat, or worse by people experiencing homelessness. It’s patented and sports a variety of features to make it virtually indestructible.

As you likely know, one of the challenges for people without homes is how to manage everyday tasks:  hygiene, sleeping location, securing your personal possessions, and, of course, restroom use.  One solution to this last need is public toilets.

The L.A. public toilet near Grand Central Market. Photo from

Honestly, I had never even noticed the freestanding, outdoor toilets downtown until a couple of years ago.  In L.A.  they are green little ovals that are technically called APTs, for Automated Public Toilet.

They are self cleaning, and the door opens automatically after several minutes, limiting the time one person can be inside (and, the logic goes, the activities they can do within).

And did you know there is an interesting history  (ok, I use the word ‘interesting’ loosely) of the public toilets (or lack thereof) in the Los Angeles downtown region?

These green structures are relatively new additions to the downtown area.  Which is not to say that the city has never had public toilets before.  There were many on Skid Row in the 80’s, but they were actually portables paid for by the residents of Skid Row, who could rent them for $70 a month.

However, one month after the city sweeps began on Skid Row in February of 1987, they were removed.  A complaint was filed about them, and away they went, taking with them the sense of self efficacy they brought to the community.

At some point in the next decade, toilets returned, paid for by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, who channel all financial resources for the homeless in the entire county.  Unfortunately, in 1998 they reduced the number of public toilets on Skid Row by half.  At the time, the 26 restrooms were used to full capacity, but reducing to 13 saved them $109,000 a year, a sum that can fund 5,400 emergency beds in the same timeframe.  (I could not find out, though, if those funds were actually allocated to emergency beds.)

Then, in 2001, Los Angeles voted to install 150 APTs.  By 2007, there were only 7 installed, and only one worked.

The project has continued, thankfully, because the reality of the situation is that if you want to “keep the streets clean,” you need to account for the fact that people without homes still need to use a restroom.

But here’s the thing.  The Los Angeles model of the APT costs $250,000 per toilet.  (By hosting advertising, it is supposed to pay for itself in the end.)  San Francisco’s version runs at $326,000.  But Portand’s version is $60,000 (For them.  It’s $100,000 if you are a city that purchases from them.) It can be maintained for only $12,000 per year.

If Los Angeles already pays to bulldoze skid Row every morning, in an effort to ‘clean up’ the area, is it too much to ask that they get a move on with the rest of the toilets?  After all, those toilets would aid the clean up effort by minimizing human waste on the streets and sidewalks.  Also, I am of the opinion that no one wants to relieve themselves against a tree.  (Other than, my husband says, a Jr. High boy and Flop.)

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