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Santa Rosa could add portable bathrooms, showers for homeless

Santa Rosa is considering providing portable bathrooms and showers for homeless people as part of a broader effort to reach out to people in need of housing and social services.

Options to be explored by the City Council Tuesday include extending the hours of public bathrooms, renting portable toilets and handwashing stations, or renting a combination shower/restroom trailer.

Details of each option - including where the services would be located - won’t be worked out until after the council weighs in. But city staff and service providers feel that a mobile shower/restroom unit may represent the most effective option.

“Bathrooms and showers are one of the most requested things by people who are experiencing homelessness,” said Jennielynn Holmes-Davis, director of shelter and housing at Catholic Charities.

Such a trailer, which would cost about $74,000 per year to rent, would not only provide needed facilities for people living outdoors, but would best help providers build trust with people who need housing the most, Holmes-Davis said.

She envisions the trailer being used by the county’s new homeless outreach team, the group of social workers and mental health specialists who team up with law enforcement officers to encourage people to seek shelter. Santa Rosa is spending $415,000 to fund an expansion of the county program in the city to include rehousing vouchers, the cleanup of encampments and a homeless hotline.

The Homeless Outreach Service Team, known as HOST, could use the promise of a bathroom and shower to not only initially connect with homeless people, but also as a way to follow-up with them later, Holmes-Davis said.

The trailer could be taken to places where homeless people congregate and would be monitored by HOST staff at all times, she said. Outreach staff at the site could assess what homeless people’s other needs may be and steer them toward appropriate services, she said.

A less-expensive option would involve renting about 10 portable toilets and handwashing stations and putting them in locations where they are most needed. That would cost about $22,000 per year, including the cost of cleaning, according to city staff.

Unlike the trailers, which would be moved to new locations daily, the portable toilets would be accessible 24/7. Either move would reduce the amount of waste in local waterway, officials said.

Both the portable toilets and the trailer raise a host of questions, however. Would they be located on public or private property? For how long? How would the equipment be transported to and from remote locations? How much say would neighbors have in the locations selected? Would the toilets and showers merely reduce or encourage sleeping outdoors?

Such issues will have to be worked out if the council opts to move forward.

A third option is expanding the hours that public bathrooms in parks or other public areas like City Hall are open to the public. Park bathrooms are generally open from dawn to dusk.

Keeping them open later or all night long might seem less expensive than renting portable toilets, but the costs could be higher, said Dave Gouin, the city’s director of economic development and housing.

That’s because the bathrooms would need to be cleaned more often and monitored by security, he said.

“What we’re being told by the service providers is that they need to be supervised restrooms,” Gouin said.

Cities like San Francisco have reported that unsupervised bathrooms can become “liabilities,” he said.

San Francisco has taken a proactive approach to the problem of hygiene for the homeless. A city-driven experiment with portable toilets in the Tenderloin neighborhood has been credited with reducing problems associated with public urination and defecation.

And homeless advocacy group Lava Mae converted a former Muni bus into a mobile showering vehicle that stops in established locations four times a week.

A study session on the various options begins at 3 p.m. at City Hall.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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