S.F.’s new public toilets plagued with problems

The Associated Press
Monday December 24, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO – The green, circular kiosk-style restrooms that sit on San Francisco’s streets cost only a quarter to use, but officials have recently found many toilets may be getting more than just a flush.  

In San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, notorious for its X-rated movie theaters and high drug activity, police listened closely after people dropped their 25 cents into the slot and stepped inside. 

“Not one flush,” said Supervisor Gavin Newsom. “The police watched for weeks, and nobody inside that toilet at night used it for the purpose it was designed for.” 

Instead, homeless people camped out inside, heroin and crack cocaine was sold and used there, and prostitutes brought a whole new meaning to the term “john.” 

Newsom has proposed a measure that would close four of the most crime-ridden commodes from 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. during a six-month trial period. 

Toilet manufacturer JCDecaux says the self-cleaning lavatories are in 550 cities worldwide, and that they are not to blame for drug and prostitution problems that existed long before the restrooms were added. 

But San Francisco police Cmdr. Greg Suhr said officers monitored eight toilets for three weeks in November. None of those commodes had more than three flushes during that time. He noted that even a homeless man told officers he “would rather go behind a tree than use one of those toilets,” Suhr said. “If a person who’s down on their luck is worried about health hazards associated with using a facility designed for the disenfranchised, that means the toilets are missing their mark.” 

But Jake Szeto, a project manager for San Francisco’s Public Works Department, said 3 million people have used the city’s 25 public toilets, which are only a problem in certain neighborhoods. He said the toilet at the corner of 6th and Mission streets will be moved because of the patrons it attracts. 

But Zine said he welcomes the new toilets as a way to reduce public urination and defecation. 

“You go in some alleys in the downtown area, the stench of urine is so overwhelming it’s ridiculous,” Zine said. “It’s a health hazard. We’ve got to do something about it.”