Sunday, October 1, 2017
[San Diego County] 'Water Man' saw such need for restrooms downtown, he installed them himself
Blog note: this article references four grand jury reports since 2000 about the problem.
Nearly a decade before San Diego was struck by a deadly, human waste-fueled hepatitis A outbreak, David “Water Man” Ross was thinking about port-a-potties.
The Detroit-born retired car salesman — known to many homeless residents for his regular deliveries of free snacks and bottled water — saw that rapid growth in the city’s downtown homeless population was not being matched by a similar rise in new restrooms.
At City Council meetings, he offered increasingly louder, sharper warnings about people dying on streets that still other people were using as toilets. Still, nothing seemed to change.
By 2011, Ross found himself cutting a hole in a fence near 17th and K streets and installing a bank of four donated portable toilets on private land — because, he said, city officials wouldn’t let him do it on the sidewalk. The toilets were maintained by a private company, with money provided by Ross and a small group of other homeless advocates.
The response to the facilities was swift and almost overwhelming. At their peak, Ross estimates the toilets — situated on land owned by God’s Extended Hand, a church-run homeless shelter located at 1625 Island Ave. — were used up to 500 times a day.
All that foot traffic eventually drew the ire of neighbors who brought their concerns to City Hall. Ross reports officials, who once chipped in funding for the port-a-potties, responded by rolling out the red tape — placing additional restrictions on the toilets that rankled the company that owned them and eventually spelled their demise.
“The city told me (the restrooms) had to go,” Ross said. “No one said to me, ‘do we have an alternate plan to put these somewhere else?’ I don’t think anyone at the city knew, or cared, about the consequences.”
This month, city crews returned to the site where Ross’ port-a-potties once stood, this time armed with facemasks and chlorine-filled power washers meant to blast feces off the streets.
Within a week of those cleanings, city officials — now faced with a headline-grabbing hepatitis outbreak that’s killed 17 people and infected more than 400 others — had announced the emergency addition of eight new downtown port-a-potties, including four located just three blocks from where Ross’ used to be.
Four others were set down on C Street, the same road where the city removed another bank of port-a-potties in 2013.
Taken together, San Diego lost more 24-hour downtown public restrooms than it added over several years leading up to the city’s ongoing hepatitis crisis, now thought to be the nation’s second-worst outbreak of the viral liver infection in two decades.
The tally of lost restrooms includes Ross’ restrooms, the C Street port-a-potties and a pair of much-anticipated, city-sponsored “Portland Loos.” The first of the loos, which were installed at a cost of more than $500,000, was removed within months of its arrival in 2015.
City spokeswoman Katie Keach said last week the city had added, and kept, a total of four downtown bathroom sites since 2010. One of those, on Harbor Drive near Seaport Village, is open 24 hours.
Keach cited crime and vandalism concerns among the reasons the Portland Loos were scrapped. She said an unknown number of port-a-potties located somewhere on C Street was taken out because they were being operated without a maintenance permit.
As to the restrooms installed by Ross, Keach said she was seeking information from the city’s Code Compliance team on what happened.
Citing news coverage, she said, “The choice to remove them was linked to the city, but the city did not remove them.”
Katheryn Rhodes, who helped Ross pay for the toilets, said the city became involved in removing those toilets after neighbors complained to city leaders.
“They had to be taken out because the neighbors complained,” Rhodes said. “We wanted the city to take over. We didn’t want to have to be the ones providing toilets.”
That account was backed by Anne Rios, executive director of San Diego homeless advocacy group Think Dignity and a longtime advocate for adding more downtown restrooms.
“(The port-a-potties) were there once and they’re gone now,” said Rios, whose nonprofit still provides Ross with the bottled water he distributes to those living on the streets. “They were removed and the city was involved.”
Rev. Curtis Bernstein, who serves as president of God’s Extended Hand, did not return requests for comment on the port-a-potties. Nor did Eric De Jong, the sanitation company owner who Ross said helped build and maintain the 17th Street port-a-potties. De Jong in June pleaded guilty to a criminal conspiracy charge stemming from a $4.1 million sewer disposal fee-dodging scheme. He and other company executives agreed to pay that sum back to several area municipalities after federal prosecutors caught them using portable toilets to hide waste being unlawfully dumped into illicit city sewer lines hookups.
The San Diego Union-Tribune last week reported that since 2000, four grand jury reports attempted to steer attention to the risks posed by human waste on city streets and a shortage of toilets available for use by the city’s growing homeless population.
One such report, filed in 2010, explicitly warned that an outbreak of illness caused by such unsanitary conditions “could result in liability to the city.”
Publicly available documents show the city disagreed, writing in response to the findings that it was “not aware of any legal theory or statute” that would provide a basis for such a liability.
City Council meeting minutes show San Diego leaders expressed wariness about portable toilets as far back as six years ago.
“We’re really trying to find a permanent solution, not just rows of port-a-potties downtown,” then-Councilwoman Marti Emerald told her colleagues in October 2011. “We’re too classy a city to have a bunch of plastic port-a-potties around.”
Ross, a familiar face at City Council meetings, didn’t disagree, referring to the port-a-potties as a Band-Aid fix meant to help the city reach a better solution.
But over the next few years, as the city’s homeless population continued to soar, Ross warned that Band-Aids could no longer hold back a hemorrhage of human waste.
The 82-year-old former boxer, who recently won a weekslong bout with double pneumonia, said he plans to return to that theme as long as he can still attend council meetings.
Meanwhile, Ross is still giving out free snacks and bottled water. He sometimes greets people with an elbow bump he jokingly refers to as a “hepatitis handshake.”
Many of the dozens lined up outside the Neil Good Day Center on Wednesday afternoon got a real handshake — and a hug. A few shook their heads after hearing Ross’ breathless retelling of the rise and decline of the 17th Street port-a-potties.
“You gotta hop on the trolley these days, or the Coaster, to find a bathroom,” said Jason Gibbs, a 38-year-old San Diego native who said he’d spent several months on the streets. “(The city) needs to fork over a lot of the money to a whole building full of restrooms.
“The way I see it, they’re either gonna spend it on that, or they’re gonna have to keep spending it on hep A.”
October 1, 2017
The San Diego Union-Tribune
By James DeHaven