Supervisors ask for evaluation of encampments that need hygiene facilities

By Gary Walker

The interior of a Lava Mae mobile shower, which visits Venice weekly
Photo by Maria Martin

Nearly a month after public health authorities declared an outbreak of hepatitis A, Los Angeles County homeless officials are set to begin surveying encampments to assess the need for toilet and handwashing facilities in those areas.

News of the infectious liver disease epidemic in San Diego sparked concerns about hepatitis A among Venice residents who live near a homeless encampment on Third Avenue. To date, public health officials say there have been no reported cases of hepatitis A in that location.

At its meeting Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors directed the Los Angeles County Homeless Authority to conduct assessments of homeless camps to determine where restrooms and hand washing stations are needed.

“While efforts are already underway to increase access in some areas with high numbers of homeless people, such as Venice and skid row, additional efforts are needed to identify areas where lack of sanitation facilities for homeless people could increase the possibility of spreading hepatitis A,” the motion states. “Once identified, additional options for safe toileting are needed in order to prevent the spread of hepatitis A.”

Last month, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin asked the council for funding to staff emergency and portable restroom facilities near encampments and to keep certain Venice Beach restrooms open 24 hours day.

“This is a public health crisis and we need to act with urgency,” Bonin said.

According to information provided by Bonin’s office, a recent report stated that there are only nine public restrooms available at night for the people living on skid row.

Venice Beach has funding to open only one set of beach restrooms and, according to a June report by a group of homeless service providers, conditions
in those facilities do not even meet the standards set by the United Nations for refugee camps, according to Bonin.

In contrast, Santa Monica has provided access to restrooms since the 1990s.

“For almost 25 years, Santa Monica has offered showers and washers to those without homes at a facility near our municipal bus yards downtown, and public restrooms in downtown and other public facilities are open to all,” said Councilman Kevin McKeown, an early advocate for the hygiene facilities.

Rick Swinger, who lives near the encampment on Third Avenue, said some of his neighbors agree that bathrooms on the boardwalk should be available around the clock.

“That should be enough for the folks that need to go between 10:30 and 5 a.m.,” said Swinger, who has photographed encampments on Third Avenue.

But he disagrees with the idea of setting up mobile toilets and sinks, preferring city officials continue weekly cleanups on Third Avenue and stop people from leaving perishable food on the street for the homeless.

“It’s an outbreak waiting to happen so it’s best to clean the streets and not put up bathrooms there,” Swinger said.