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Community Says Yes to Public Bathrooms for Everyone

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday October 02, 2007

Most everyone attending Saturday’s forum on Mayor Tom Bates’ Public Commons for Everyone Initiative agreed on one part of the proposal: Berkeley needs more public toilets for everyone. 

Attended by more than 70 people, including advocates for the homeless and mentally ill, city commissioners, Gray Panthers, city staff, Chamber of Commerce officials and merchant association representatives—and welcomed as they entered the North Berkeley Senior Center by an ad hoc group singing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”—participants were clearly divided around the other elements proposed in the initiative. 

The proposal is designed to improve the experience of shoppers in the city’s commercial districts through a combination of laws and services aimed at people whose behavior on the street is considered problematic.  

The behavior targeted includes lying on sidewalks, urinating in public, tying dogs to parking meters, possessing unauthorized shopping carts and more.  

Proposed laws aimed at these behaviors include eliminating warnings to people lying on sidewalks before ticketing them, enforcing existing laws prohibiting such acts as parking bikes at parking meters and unauthorized possession of milk crates, and making urination or defecation in public an infraction, more easily prosecuted than a misdemeanor.  

Proposed services to curb the unacceptable behaviors include increased availability of public bathrooms, funded by a hike in parking meter fees and increased supportive housing, using existing low-income housing and mental health funds. (Please see sidebar.) 

In June, the City Council approved a broad outline for the initiative, which city staff is now taking to various city commissions and to the community for comment. Saturday’s meeting was part of the process to get feedback, according to Lauren Lempert, a $50,000, six-month contract city employee charged with consolidating the loosely worded plan into a set of laws and proposals for services.  

Credited with authoring the proposal, Bates was out of the country on Saturday. Instead, Councilmember Kriss Worthington, acting mayor while Bates is away, spoke briefly, encouraging “positive solutions to help the poor and homeless.” 


Anti-panhandling added 

A number of those who have followed the PCEI process expressed surprise that city staff had added panhandling to the array of behaviors that would be targeted. Panhandling was not specified as a targeted activity in the June 12 council proposal. 

Gray Panther Avis Worthington addressed the community, questioning whether aggressive panhandling is a problem in Berkeley. “I have never been aggressively panhandled,” she said. “The only person who ever hassled me on the street was a jock.” 

Similarly, Pat Mullen, recently retired after 25 years working at the central public library, said she has never been panhandled aggressively downtown. “We have all the protective laws we need already on the books,” she said, adding that city funds should be spent on food and shelter for people who need it, rather than jailing people. 

This view wasn’t unanimous, however. Pointing out that he is a 6’ 5” inch male, Willard Park area resident John Caner shared another perspective: “Walking down Telegraph, I still feel uncomfortable [when panhandled],” he said. 


Lying on sidewalks 

Among the most controversial of the proposals is the rewording of an existing ordinance to eliminate warnings police now are required to give before citing people lying on the sidewalk.  

“It has to do with access,” Lempert said. “People need access to the sidewalk.” 

Diana Hembree, a north hills resident, said the reason some people lie down on sidewalks during the day is the danger of the streets at night for people without homes. “Some people walk all night and sleep during the day,” she said. 

A number of people who spoke against the punitive aspects of the ordinance said the concern should be limited to keeping space available on the sidewalk for people walking and using wheelchairs.  

Peace and Justice Commissioner Phoebe Anne Sorgen argued that the laws on the books that include warnings are adequate to keep the sidewalks clear,  

Speaking for the Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement District, Roland Peterson shared a different view. “I ask that you eliminate all warnings. That’s the way the laws are,” he said. “I can’t drive a car at 50 miles an hour on University Avenue, on Telegraph or Shattuck and expect the police to give me a warning. I’m a threat to the safety and well-being of the community. I would say the same thing about any law that’s passed. Do not give warnings.” 

Caner also shared his perspective on lying on the sidewalk and added a “no-sitting” element to it. “Telegraph Avenue needs special treatment. We should address lying and sitting on Telegraph,” he said. (On June 12 the council voted in to delay consideration of an ordinance against prolonged sitting on the sidewalk in favor of assessing the impact of other laws on street behavior.) 


Right to poop 

The various factions in the room appeared unified around the question of public bathrooms—more are needed and they should remain open night and day, people said. Moms with young children and adults with bladder problems as well as advocates for the homeless spoke up about the need. 

“We do have a visitor restroom program if you look like me and you desperately need to use a restroom. If you look like me, you can go into a store and they’ll let you use the restroom,” said Judy Nakadegawa, underscoring that commercial restrooms are available to a select group of people. Moreover, maintaining public bathroom facilities would create needed jobs, Nakadegawa said. 

Lempert said the city is exploring extending hours at public restrooms and subsidizing businesses along Telegraph Avenue to open their restrooms to the public.  

She also said she is investigating Seattle’s automated self-cleaning public toilets.  

However, according to a Sept. 15 Seattle Times story by Linda Shen, headlined “Were high-tech toilets worth $6.6 million?”, these toilets have been a disappointment. 

The article cites a report comparing “the $360-per-toilet, per-day cost to lease and maintain them [to] the $16 a day it costs to operate a humble port-a-potty.” The article goes on to say that that the self-cleaning floor was turned off two years ago. “ Dirt tracked in from outside turned into mud, and the most innocent piece of paper in the unit turned to sludge….” A photo accompanying the story shows someone attempting to pry open the stuck mechanical doors. 

While one may have anticipated opposition in the business community to raising meter fees, no one spoke up against it. Downtown Business Association Executive Director Deborah Badhia told the Planet last week that the fee hike was acceptable to her organization. 

The increase of 25-to-50 cents per hour will bring in new city earnings of $1–$2 million.  

The proposed ordinance would change the prohibition against public urination/defecation from a misdemeanor to an infraction, which city officials say will increase the number of citations given. The council specified in its June 12 vote that it would not change the law until adequate public bathrooms were in place. 

Lempert suggested other areas where increased parking meter money could be spent, including reinstating the Quarter Meal program at Trinity Church (among the cutbacks in the 2007-2008 budget), expanding the youth shelter program, which is open only during winter months, and developing peer outreach programs. 


Selective enforcement 

While Lempert stated several times that the law would not be selectively enforced, Zachary Running Wolf pointed out that there is now no way Berkeleyans can hold individual officers accountable for their actions when it appears selective enforcement has taken place. 

Following a California Supreme Court decision and a Berkeley Police Association lawsuit, the city is no longer holding police complaint hearings.  


Other ideas 

Terry Kalahar, who works with homeless people through the city’s Health and Human Services Department, suggested a way to get people more services without costing the city more money. New hires—psychiatrists, social workers, case managers, peer support personnel—need to agree to work swing shifts if they are hired, he said.  

“Berkeley Mental Health services shut down at 5 p.m.,” he said. “Put [workers] out on the street where people are.” 

One participant suggested the city create an auto park for homeless persons. Another said the city should not approve new restaurants without their bathroom facilities being open to the public. Someone said the city should open up senior centers for the homeless at night, including the bathrooms.  

Hire people to escort those intimidated by the sight of poor people, suggested Commissioner Sorgen, calling such persons “paid public commons guardians.” 

If the idea is to get more people downtown, “the city should stop the fear-mongering,” said Bonnie Hughes, noting that she’s been putting on events in downtown Berkeley for 17 years and has never been afraid of people on the street. 

Noting that the Downtown Berkeley Association represents 900 businesses, Deborah Badhia underscored DBA support for the initiative, including “places to sit and restrooms.” 

Badhia added, “We respect the city for putting together a package of services to try to find the linkages between agencies to make our streets a safer place. We do get complaints from our business owners.”  

While all the proposals remain simply suggestions at this point, Osha Neumann, an attorney who works with many poor and homeless individuals, said that as a result of the June 12 council recommendations, “Police took their marching orders and they have been enforcing, not only ‘strict enforcement’ of laws, but laws that don’t exist. They believe they got their marching orders from council to clear people out of town. They tell people on Telegraph Avenue they can’t sit, they can’t lie.”  


Further discussions on the initiative will take place 7 p.m., Oct. 4 at the Housing Advisory Commission, South Berkeley Senior Center, 2939 Ellis St., and at 6:30 p.m., Oct. 11 at the Community Health Commission, at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave. The City Council will address the proposal Nov. 20. 


Public Commons for Everyone Initiative Explained 


On June 12 the City Council approved elements of the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative (PCEI) for discussion purposes. They include: 

• Expand prohibitions against smoking in commercial zones. 

• Install signage with directions to public bathrooms.  

• Draft language for an ordinance citing public urination and defecation as an infraction and refer the draft to the Police Review Commission; delay implementation of the ordinance until there is an increase in the number of public toilets and the hours existing public toilets are open. 

• Plan for new public seating and for commercial area economic development; plan how to discourage people from giving money to people on the streets by having them redirect donations to nonprofits. 

• Expand supportive housing opportunities linking the city’s Housing Trust Fund (for affordable and low-income housing) with funding for mental health services; refer this to the Housing Advisory Commission. 

• Solicit feedback and proposals from the Mental Health, Homeless, Community Health, Police Review, Housing Advisory, and the Human Welfare and Community Action commissions and “key community stakeholders” for consideration by the council. 

• Compile information on the number of citations issued, prosecuted and convicted on quality-of-life citations currently happening in Berkeley, as well as adjoining jurisdictions. 

• Delay consideration of any ordinance banning sitting on the sidewalk for one year until the results of other recommendations are evaluated. 

• Implement community-involved policing features such as increasing police beat walking and communication with businesses, residents and the whole community and implementation of a dedicated cell phone or pager when feasible. 

• Write a plan (and take it to the Police Review Commission) to adhere to and enforce existing local and state laws pertaining to street behavior including: 

- Removal of dog feces. 

- Hitching animals to fixed objects. 

- Littering. 

- Lying on the sidewalk. 

- Public consumption of alcohol. 

- Yelling and shouting. 

- Obstructing or restricting use of the sidewalk. 

- Bicycle license and registration required. 

- Riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. 

- Parking a bicycle against a window or on a parking meter. 

- Unauthorized possession of a shopping cart, recycling container or milk crate.  

• Increase the number of parking meters and parking meter fees to generate income for PCEI and allied programs. The action was amended to include directions to staff to explore new ways to raise revenue in addition to parking meters.  

• Hire a six-month full-time employee [this has been done] and ask the city manager to draft program plans for diversion, street outreach teams, and community policing with input from the relevant commissions.