Amid hepatitis A concerns, councilman says improving hygiene is “a matter of basic decency”

By Gary Walker

On Sept. 22, residents of homeless encampments on Third Avenue protested the city impounding their belongings by writing messages on empty boxes likely to be seized in the next cleanup. Ben and Becca, formerly a film industry production assistant and make-up artist, have been homeless in Venice for a year.
Photo by Mia Duncans

Following Los Angeles County’s declaration of a hepatitis A outbreak after a surge of cases among homeless populations in San Diego and Santa Cruz, homeless encampments along Third Avenue in Venice may soon be getting portable sinks and 24-hour access to public restrooms on the beach.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin is seeking additional city funding to operate existing, emergency and portable restrooms and sinks near encampments and staff them with attendants around the clock to help stem the spread of communicable diseases.

“Providing clean and safe restroom access is a matter of basic decency — and smart public health policy,” Bonin said after submitting a Sept. 26 council motion to request funds. “The recent public health crisis is another frightening reminder of the real costs of continued inaction. We cannot allow red tape to prolong suffering. We must act now to offer people safe places to use the restroom and get cleaned up.

“This is a solvable problem.”

Bonin’s council motion references San Francisco’s “Pit Stop” program, which provides mobile bathrooms and sinks at more than a dozen locations. It is modeled after a mobile shower program that also began in San Francisco, Lava Mae, which already provides mobile showers for homeless people at Third Avenue and in Westchester.

Bonin is also urging the city Department of Recreation and Parks to keep restrooms on Venice Beach open around the clock. He secured funds for 24/7 beach bathroom staffing during budget deliberations earlier this year, but the department has yet to initiate the process.

“This is a public health crisis, and we need to act with urgency,” Bonin said. “It is inhumane and unsafe to deny people access to restrooms. It endangers people living on the street, and it endangers neighbors who find human feces in their alleys and on their sidewalks.”

Los Angeles County health authorities declared a hepatitis A outbreak on Sept. 19 after documenting 10 cases in Los Angeles, many of them linked to the San Diego outbreak that’s killed 17 people.

Anxiety has spread among a group of residents who live near one of Venice’s largest homeless encampments on Third Avenue after learning about the San Diego epidemic. They began asking the Bureau of Sanitation, which conducts regular street cleanings on Third Avenue, to wash nearby sidewalks with bleach prior to the Los Angeles outbreak.

“We are working closely with the L.A. County Department of Public Health to respond proactively to this outbreak, connecting them with on-the-ground service providers to make sure resources and information are getting out as soon as possible via trusted sources. Although there have been no reported cases in our district, service providers such as Venice Family Clinic, Safe Place for Youth and street outreach teams are coordinating free vaccinations to ensure everyone stays safe,” said Bonin spokeswoman Jamarah Hayner.

On Sept. 25, the Venice Neighborhood Council’s Homeless Committee passed a resolution calling for mobile kiosks dispensing vaccines and medical care on a weekly basis, similar to what Hayner said was already happening.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, whose district includes Venice, said understanding how hepatitis A is spread and not fomenting rumors — such as claims last winter of an outbreak of the staph bacteria MRSA on Third Avenue that proved to be false — is critical.

“You are not going to catch it by walking by someone or if you live in a certain area. We have to be proactive in providing vaccines and other assistance, but it’s important that we not overact to this outbreak,” said Kuehl, who supports keeping the Venice Beach restrooms open.

In the midst of the discussions about restrooms and hepatitis A, homeless activists are decrying what they say are recent heavy-handed tactics by Bureau of Sanitation employees, who they say have begun confiscating the possessions of homeless people on Third Avenue during previously routine sidewalk cleanups.