Homeless Toilet Dispute Heads to OC Supervisors Amid Sewage Concerns

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

Homeless advocates purchased and installed these porta potties near the Santa Ana River in May, before Anaheim city officials removed them.

A bathroom standoff between county officials and homeless people near Angel Stadium is heading to the county Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, where homeless advocates are hoping supervisors will support waiving a $2,000 application fee for a porta potty permit.

“People are defecating out in [public], and urinating. That water is going somewhere” and it goes “into our tributaries,” said Paul Leon, a former county public health nurse who founded and leads the Illumination Foundation, which provides homeless services in Orange County.

County health officials have said “multiple times: if we ever have a [tuberculosis] epidemic, a flu epidemic, a MRSA epidemic – it doesn’t matter if you live in Newport Beach, it’s gonna get to you,” Leon said.

Describing the overall public health issues around homelessness in Orange County, he said: “It’s not good. It’s a fricking time bomb.”

County officials say homeless people should use restrooms at the Courtyard shelter, more than three miles from the Santa Ana river bank encampment. But the shelter closes its doors at 8:30 p.m. and only those spending the night at the already-full shelter can use the bathrooms.

Anyone waking up in the middle of the night who needs to use the restroom “would have a problem walking several miles before they could urinate or defecate,” said homeless advocate Mohammed Aly.

Currently, the several hundred homeless people living along the riverbank use bottles, plastic bags and other improvised containers. There also are public restrooms a few blocks from the encampment, but they are closed at night.

County officials declined to comment on  the public health implications of the homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River.

“We have said, and will continue to say, that the (Santa Ana River) flood control channel is not a place to live. It is not designed for, or safe for human habitation,” said county spokeswoman Carrie Braun.

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

Part of the homeless encampment near the Santa Ana River, which is home to hundreds of people.

For weeks, advocates have urged Orange County supervisors, who oversee the riverbed area, homelessness and public health, to install portable restrooms until a realistic alternative is found.

The request has so far been rejected. 

So advocates raised about $1,000 to purchase three portable toilets, which they installed along the riverbank on May 13.

“It is clear that it is better to have people urinate and defecate into a portable restroom than the alternative, when the alternative is a plastic bag or a bucket,” said Aly.

He helped organize the portable restrooms with other advocates through the group he co-founded, the Orange County Poverty Alleviation Coalition, which is registered at the Santa Ana home of Dwight Smith and his wife Leia, who run the Isaiah House women’s homeless shelter.

County officials, considered the porta potties an “unauthorized use,” and vowed to remove them if the advocates didn’t.

Last Monday, two days after the porta potties were installed,  advocates moved them from the county’s riverbed property to Anaheim city land that is part of a fire training facility.

A day later,  Anaheim city officials posted a 24-hour notice seeking the restrooms’ removal. On Friday, city officials removed the porta potties, saying there was no permit, insurance, or plans to service the toilets.

“We appreciate the good intentions and share their concern for those staying along the riverbed,” city spokesman Mike Lyster said in a statement. “Because of that, we went above and beyond to see if this could be done the right way.”

“As a goodwill gesture, there will be no cost” to the porta potties’ owner for the city’s storing of the toilets until they’re picked up, Lyster said.

Aly said insurance and servicing for the porta potties has been arranged, and that he appreciates the city storing them for free and pumping them.

As for permits, the county is requiring a non-refundable $2,000 fee for advocates to seek permission to put the restrooms along the riverbed. County officials said paying the fee is no guarantee the porta potties will be approved. 

If an application is submitted, the county will “decide on approval or denial based on the [details] of the application,” said Braun. “We need all of the facts included that come with the application.”

County officials say restrooms are available at the county’s Kraemer and Courtyard shelters, both of which are at least three miles – an hour-plus walk – from the main riverbed encampment.

The Courtyard, in downtown Santa Ana, allows walk-in restroom use during the day for people who sign in, Braun said. But at night, the shelter closes its doors at 8:30 p.m. and only allows those who are staying inside to use the restroom. And the Courtyard is already full or near capacity each night, taking it off the table for night-time restroom use by riverbed dwellers.

The Courtyard’s capacity is 400 people, and it had at least 399 people staying each night last Monday through Thursday, according to the county.

The Kraemer shelter, in Anaheim, does not allow walk-up restroom use, but does provide restrooms for the up to 100 people who are referred into its programs and stay at the shelter full-time. The recently-opened shelter has been steadily filling up, with just 33 vacancies left as of Thursday, and is also several miles from the main riverbed encampment.

“It’s really disingenuous for the county” to be saying people at the riverbed should be using the shelter restrooms, Aly said.

Advocates want the Board of Supervisors to allow restrooms at the riverbed, and waive the $2,000 application fee.

The fee is non-refundable, and Aly said if they pay it they might be “wasting $2,000” for an application that could very well be rejected.

Advocates are mobilizing to speak at the supervisors’ meeting Tuesday in support of restroom access for the riverbed homeless population.

County supervisors, in addition to having jurisdiction over the riverbed property, are the lead elected officials responsible for addressing homelessness and public health in Orange County.

But the issue isn’t on their agenda for Tuesday, which could limit their ability to take action. County attorneys say any decision by supervisors to waive the fee would have to take place in open session, unless it’s part of a litigation settlement.

If supervisors do want to waive the fee or take action on the restrooms issue, they could either take it up as an emergency item under Rule 26 of their board rules, or schedule a special meeting to take action, as long as they give at least 24 hours of advanced notice.

Advocates say they will keep pushing for restroom access.

“We will press forward if the county does not” provide restrooms or allow them, Aly said.

“It’s beyond a question that homeless people deserve access to basic sanitation, that homeless people have no other alternative than to live in the riverbed currently,” and at least until there’s better alternative “their needs have to be met. And advocates will meet that need if the county refuses to.”

The supervisors’ meeting begins Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. at the county Hall of Administration in Santa Ana.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.