Skid Row's Toilet Woes: Where Going to the Bathroom Is Illegal

Homeless persons gathering on the sidewalk, Skid Row, Los Angeles, 1996. Photo by Jerry Berndt. Photo courtesy USC Digital Archives

The Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A."¨
Law: L.A. Municipal Code SEC.41.47.2, ordinance 175626
Year: 2003
Jurisdiction: City of Los Angeles
Nominated by: Janet Owen Driggs

"I'm against urinating or defecating in public, don't get me wrong," Janet Owen Driggs says - and, hey, what other KCET.org column this week will feature a lead like that?

"What I am also against," Owen Driggs says, "is using this human need - it's like breathing, we can't not do it - to punish homeless people and make them go away."

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Owen Driggs is a writer, artist, curator and longtime southeast Downtown L.A. resident. [Read her London-to-L.A. Arrival Story here.] She is also an employee of the Metabolic Studio** which, along with its preceding project, Farmlab, created and catalyzed projects on Skid Row and with homeless and other veterans in West L.A. The Studio's parent organization, the Annenberg Foundation, has also given grants to Skid Row agencies. Owen Driggs played varying roles in the above efforts; the opinions expressed in this column are her own.

Owen Driggs has nominated Los Angeles Municipal Code Sec. 41.47.2 and its ordinance, 175626 as a "Law That Shaped L.A."

The ordinance reads in part: "No person shall urinate or defecate in or upon any public street, sidewalk, alley, plaza, beach, park, public building or other publicly maintained facility or place, or in any place open to the public or exposed to public view..."

Owen Driggs makes it clear she is not coming out in favor of increasing the possibility of a cholera epidemic, but that she is instead using that ordinance as a way to "open a door" into a discussion into the much larger issues raised during the past six years by the Safer Cities Initiative.

Launched in 2006 in and around L.A.'s Skid Row, the Safer Cities Initiative was, depending on who you listen to, either a James Q. Wilson (recent obituary, here), Broken Windows-style effort to restore order and general public access to an ungoverned and crime-strewn zone, or the criminalization of the condition of being homeless - a law enforcement mobilization to what is really a public health crisis.

"I think the ordinance against urination and defecation used as it is by the Safer City Initiative," Owen Driggs says, "is part of making the city safer for commerce, not itself safer or more healthy for homeless people." For the ordinance to be reasonable, she says, "It needs to be complemented by a plethora of public conveniences that are well-maintained and clean."

Photo by Flickr user Fire Monkey Fish, photo used under Creative Commons license.
Photo by Flickr user Fire Monkey Fish, photo used under Creative Commons license.

Owen Driggs knows that she isn't the first to offer observations. As she and others cite, author Mike Davis, in his seminal 1990 book, City of Quartz, wrote that public toilets "have become the real frontline of the city's war on the homeless. Los Angeles, as a matter of deliberate policy, has fewer public lavatories than any other major North American city."

The 2003 L.A. code, Owen Driggs says, "was written at a time when gentrification was beginning to thrust its way into Downtown and the City wanted to make the world of East Central L.A. safe for commercial enterprise and new lofts and galleries."

Owen Driggs, who co-operated the non-profit arts space, Raid Projects in Downtown's The Brewery complex, three or so miles northeast of Skid Row, says the art world 's encroachment was used by officials as an excuse to make it harder for homeless people to be there. "The city used the excuse of the art world's move into that area to say we need to make the city safer for these 'respectable'* people."

Citywide and beyond, opinions vary wildly regarding Safer Cities. In 2009, LAPD Senior Lead Officer Deon Joseph posted this entry to an LAPD blog:

Owen Driggs understands the civic and planning history that led to an urban core concentration of homeless and substance abuse shelters and clinics. She also agrees that many other cites do little or nothing to provide anything close to a decent share of support - or even public bathrooms.

But Owen Driggs also sites figures showing that during the first year of the Safer Cities Initiative, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested 9,000 people out of a Skid Row population of 13,000 as well as issued 12,000 citations, "primarily for crosswalk violations," she says.

Owen Driggs also points to a criminal defense attorney's web forum claim that he has "seen people charged with indecent exposure, Penal Code 314 for urinating in public." The complication? "This is a misdemeanor," the criminal defense attorney posts, "that carries lifetime registration as a sex offender."

And Owen Driggs recommends this report by UCLA School of Law Professor Gary Blasi that described Skid Row as having had "perhaps the highest sustained concentration of police officers anywhere in the world outside of Baghdad."

"So the enforcement came fast," Own Driggs says, examining the report's press summary, "but the enhancements - shelter, treatment and services which I assume would also include public toilets - didn't come."

Her reading about the issue leads her to tick off various figures, such as how during a period of time when the LAPD made 7,500 arrests, only 34 people completed the public-private "Streets Or Services (SOS)" Program.

[Related: Information about Project 50 and the veteran's Project 60.]

Owen Driggs also cites UCLA figures showing $6 million dollars of funding for scores of LAPD officers flooding the 50-square-block zone as opposed to about $100,000 for the "Streets or Services Program. Owen Driggs says: "That's a marked difference in emphasis and resources."

Growing up in London, Owen Driggs recalls having myriad well-maintained public toilets. Here in L.A., meanwhile, when even a handful of self-cleaning toilets were installed Downtown, Owen Driggs recalls a hue and cry about the loos as drug dens and havens for prostitution - as if the bathrooms are to blame for the existence of addiction, escape and the oldest profession.

Owen Driggs also knows that other parts of the region and state don't exactly go out of their way to build water closets. That's no excuse for L.A. to not provide and further still, no excuse to then throw the book at people who are in a Catch-22 when it comes to relieving themselves.

"There are certain standards of human decency and human respect that we need to extend to one another that we are not as a society prioritizing," Owen Driggs says. "Surely the very least we could do is try help those people who are having a very, very difficult time maintain their human dignity and self-respect by providing them with places to s--t and wash?"

**Jeremy Rosenberg used to work there and on related projects.

Top photo: Homeless persons gathering on the sidewalk, Skid Row, Los Angeles, 1996. Photo by Jerry Berndt. Photo courtesy USC Digital Archives.

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