Berkeley City Council delays decision on portable bathroom at homeless encampment

Grace Zhang/Staff

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The controversial decision on whether to install a portable bathroom at a homeless encampment site will be pushed back for another two weeks.

At its regular meeting Tuesday, Berkeley City Council unanimously passed a motion to continue discussing installing a portable bathroom on a homeless encampment site at the council’s Oct. 17 meeting. On Tuesday, the council discussed two opposing recommendations regarding establishing a portable bathroom on the First They Came for the Homeless encampment site on Adeline Street. The first motion, submitted by the Homeless Commission, encourages the council to approve the portable bathroom in light of public health concerns, while the second recommendation, submitted by the city manager, advises against it.

At its July 25 meeting, the council voted to place a public-use portable bathroom in a parking lot near Alcatraz Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, close to a First They Came for the Homeless encampment. The bathroom was installed in August, but some members of the homeless community expressed concern that the bathroom was too far from the encampment. They also said they wanted the bathroom to be used solely by the homeless community, as opposed to the general public, for hygienic purposes.

In light of potential health concerns, such as the recent Hepatitis A outbreak in San Diego County, Councilmember Linda Maio proposed the council build on the Homeless Commission’s proposal and place more portable bathrooms to address potential health concerns.

“This is something you need to do not just because it’s a health issue but because it’s the right thing morally to do,” said campus researcher James McFadden at the meeting. “When you do that, what you’re going to find out is that the rest of the city is going to benefit from it.”

Maio also said, however, that moving the toilet directly into the encampment would require placing it on BART property. Councilmember Kate Harrison and Mayor Jesse Arreguín questioned the possibility of the placement because they could not sanction the placement of a portable bathroom on BART property. According to Arreguín, the July 25 vote to install the portable bathroom “came out of urgency action” that the council took, but he said BART staff members have expressed concern that there are a number of homeless encampments on BART property, adding that he has been discussing the issue with them.

Paul Buddenhagen, director of health, housing and community services, said the city manager’s recommendation was to look at the city as a whole as opposed to just the one encampment site. He added that the main concern was that encampments could receive different treatment — by placing portable bathrooms in one encampment, the others may not be served.

“The City is home to more encampments and unsheltered people than just the FTCFTH group,” the recommendation said. “We caution against any Council action that would create a precedent for specific groups to receive public land use permissions outside of the City’s codified administrative process for so doing.”

But Councilmember Ben Bartlett said he believes the bathroom should be given to the First They Came for the Homeless encampment, adding that he thought the encampment was a “model organization.”

“I would like the bathroom (to) be permitted for use just for (the) First They Came for the Homeless people because they can take care of it,” Bartlett said. “They deserve it.”

During the meeting, the council also unanimously approved amendment items to expand the Berkeley Food and Housing Project. The motion amends an existing contract with the Berkeley Food and Housing Project and adds $100,000 a year for two years to go towards expanding existing operations to include the Flexible Housing Subsidy Pool, which is a fund meant to provide “rapid rehousing resources” for Berkeley’s homeless population.

The council also unanimously voted to support a Health Impact Assessment of the proposed closure of Alta Bates Summit Medical Center.

Last spring, Sutter Health, which owns Alta Bates, announced its intent to close emergency services at the Ashby campus — Berkeley’s only emergency room. In light of growing controversy from the community, the council passed a motion supporting the creation of an impact assessment on health, which would examine the implications of the proposed closure of the hospital.

“We know that losing our hospital would mean serious implications for our health community,” said Andy Katz, a member of the Health Commission, at the meeting. “When communities lose hospitals, there are serious impacts on our health.”

Elena Aguirre covers city government. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @eaguirreDC.