New bathroom for general public opens in South Berkeley

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Yukun Zhang/Staff

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A new public-use portable bathroom, accessible to people with physical disabilities, was installed in a city parking lot near Alcatraz Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way on Friday after the city received pressure from a nearby homeless encampment organized by the advocacy group First They Came for the Homeless, along with local neighborhood residents and merchants.

The bathroom is funded and will be maintained by Friends of Adeline, a local activist group focused on advocating for affordable housing and other issues in South Berkeley. Friends of Adeline has been helping the encampment by providing counseling, support and other resources.

Richie Smith, an activist and member of Friends of Adeline, said the bathroom is needed for passersby, nearby farmers’ market customers and local homeless community members especially.

“(The homeless community members) are human beings,” Smith said. “They should be looked after and taken care of until they can get back on their feet.”

Mayor Jesse Arreguín said local community members have requested the bathroom for some time because of the “critical shortage of public restrooms in South Berkeley.”

Homeless community members urinate in public areas after businesses with public restrooms close in the evening, creating a public health hazard, according to Arreguín.

Some businesses along Adeline Street have also had long bathroom lines because of nearby homeless encampment members using business restrooms, according to Lorin Business Association President Heather Haxo Phillips, creating more stress for local businesses.

City Councilmember Ben Bartlett also held a community meeting in July, during which local homeowners and business owners expressed a strong urge to place a portable bathroom near the encampment, according to Arreguín.

Arreguín said despite public support for the new bathroom, city administration was not willing to implement the community’s idea until City Council took action.

Arreguín and Bartlett proposed the authorization of a new public restroom in a South Berkeley parking lot and “Neighborhood Public Toilet Policy” in two emergency items at the council’s July 25 meeting, both of which the council voted to approve.

“It was difficult and time-consuming. There really was no process for allowing something like this so the city staff had to figure out a process,” Arreguín said. “Given this was impacting businesses as well as (being) an issue of health and safety, I feel that we had to take immediate action.”

Homeless community activist Guy “Mike” Lee said the new public bathroom near the First They Came for the Homeless encampment was “a good start” because “bathrooms are non-accessible anywhere in the city of Berkeley” for homeless community members.

He added that Friends of Adeline, the homeless population and the local business community worked together to get the portable bathroom.

It was because of the strength of the partnership that we were able to make this happen,” Lee said. “I think that the solution is the City Council itself has to take a more proactive role. It has to sit down and be willing and open to talking with the community and listening to their ideas and implementing those ideas.”

Some community members, however, have already raised concerns about the new bathroom.

A number of syringes have already been found in the new bathroom, according to city of Berkeley Homeless Commissioner Carole Marasovic and Adam Bredenberg, a member of First They Came for the Homeless.

Marasovic said she believed the homeless encampment should have its own portable bathroom that it would control and pay for, rather than a general public-use bathroom.

Bredenberg said in an email he had concerns about the bathroom’s capacity and security, adding that “two or three toilets can’t serve everybody in South Berkeley.”

He stated in an email that while he believes that the installation of this bathroom is “a major victory,” it still does not grant the encampment members their “natural rights.”

“I want public toilets in Berkeley, but I also want my community to have the right to take care of its own sanitation,” Bredenberg said in an email. “The government will permit sanitation only under their aegis. They will not permit what they cannot control, and therefore we will always be illegal.”

Contact Atira Nair at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @atirastar.a