Friday, October 5, 2007

Column: Are pricey public bathrooms worth the cost?

Writers get a lot of their ideas from others, and I'll have to concede that I never would have thought to tackle Seattle's techno-toilets if it weren't for a short blog written on the subject by nationally syndicated radio host and Seattle area resident Michael Medved:

The city of Seattle has committed the staggering sum of $6.6 million for three high tech public toilets for the homeless. The pricy privies, with purportedly advanced but frequently malfunctioning self-cleaning features, have already become a magnet for prostitutes and drug dealers according to a report to the city council, while attracting at least as much filth as traditional porta-potties—that would have cost the city less than one-twentieth as much to lease and maintain. Meanwhile, the Seattle Times describes city parks where human waste appears nightly on benches, just yards from the gleaming techie toilets installed with so much fanfare. The city council defends the inane program as a noble attempt to “do something” for the homeless—illustrating the folly of good intentions. In truth, any effort – public or private—that makes it easier for transients to continue sleeping on the streets, only harms these unfortunates – as well as deeply damaging the downtown neighborhoods they invade and occupy. True compassion for the homeless begins with an absolute refusal to allow them to continue living on sidewalks, in alleys, underpasses, parks or empty lots, and certainly must avoid any move at all to facilitate or prolong such urban camping.

Here's my column, which I hope measures up somewhat:

Over the years, I've noticed a decrease in one thing throughout Seattle: a free restroom.

With the rise of drug use by homeless downtown occupants and a migration of transient University District inhabitants toward Capitol Hill, many businesses have really put their foot down on making sure that only customers are able to use their restrooms.

The downtown McDonald's has even hired a security guard to stand outside its restroom.

Some of the bathrooms that have been publicly used, such as those in the Pike Place Market or Westlake Mall, have been infamous for being used by drug users. After many attempts to crack down, the Seattle City Council went a different route and instituted high-tech public restrooms that have been placed throughout Seattle.


The restrooms, which have been called everything from "pricey privies" to "space toilets," are strange-looking contraptions. If you walk by one, you can see that it opens with a sliding door, an electronic voice announcing whenever the contraption is free to use.

The city has allocated $6.6 million to these technological portable toilets, and when they were originally opened, they were met with fanfare.

A news article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 2004 had the headline "At Last, Relief is in Sight as Plush Public Potties Open Downtown." The article described the bathrooms as similar to a "space ride at Disneyland."

At the time of their opening, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) spokesperson Susan Stoltzfus said, "People will be more likely to use them because they stay clean." According to the Seattle Times, however, public benches are frequently marked by human waste, left by inhabitants who didn't seem to find much use for the portable potties set up for them.

Luigi Gephart, a homeless resident of Seattle, told The Seattle Times that he calls the bathroom a "revolving crackhouse," adding, "These are the worst bathrooms you can go to."

In a blog by nationally syndicated talk show host Michael Medved, who happens to reside in the Seattle area, he went all out against the notion that these bathrooms were anything more than another use of tax dollars or in any way helped the homeless.

Medved declared, "True compassion for the homeless begins with an absolute refusal to allow them to continue living on sidewalks, in alleys, underpasses, parks or empty lots, and certainly must avoid any move at all to facilitate or prolong such urban camping."


SPU spokespeople have contended that the worst problems aren't with the bathrooms themselves, but with public relations. SPU spokesperson Andy Ryan said, "The real problem we're having with [the toilets] is that there is a public perception we're not getting our money's worth."

The bathrooms are costly to remove as well, at about $500,000 each.

Whatever the city decides, they should take into account the costs and benefits over the possible benevolence their intentions may carry.

If the toilets are supposed to fix public bodily performances, why is it that, as reported in an article on the joke website, there is "more poop on the streets?"


Doc Steech said...

$6.6 Million bucks flushed down the toilet (nyuk nyuk) on failed public projects such as these is money well spent in the liberal view.

Results are never the yard stick in measuring achievement in the Pacific Northwest (I myself hail from this ultra liberal area): intentions are the only criteria to consider.

Good job, Seattle city council, or whatever brilliant organization that concocted this idiocy. In practice, it should (as M. Medved accurately suggests) keep the homeless firmly entrenched in the Seattle area, and remove notions from their drug and alchohol addled brains to move to Chicago (my back yard).

MOPowell said...

You're so right. Parents turned against each other, poorly performing schools continuing to poorly perform and racial tension springing up in an area with little history of racism all occured when the Seattle School District decided that a child's skin pigment was the defining feature for entry into the school of their choice. Even after the Supreme Court of the US has struck their policies down, the backwards idea of defining children by characteristics that have nothing to do with their character is still in their mindset.

It was all about intentions, though. Their intentions were good, so nothing is their fault.