U-District public restroom plan suffers from slim budgets for homeless services

The now defunct Tully's Coffee on the Ave was one of many U District businesses not into sharing their bathroom with the homeless. (Photo from Flickr by Wonderlane)
The now defunct Tully’s Coffee on the Ave was one of many U District businesses not into sharing their bathroom with the homeless. (Photo from Flickr by Wonderlane)

The most recent One Night Count found almost three thousand people sleeping on the street in Seattle. But with all the talk about safe housing and shelter, one basic necessity is often overlooked: bathroom access.

There’s a modest effort afoot in the University District to change that. The U-Loo Project is an ongoing collaboration by the University District Partnership (UPD), a non-profit neighborhood business coalition and the U-District Conversation on Homelessness, a nonprofit group invested in bettering the lives of the homeless in the area, to install at least one public restroom in the U-District.

Similar to the successful Portland Loo, the U-Loo would be essentially a glorified Porta Potty for the public, Elizabeth McCoury, UDP president and CEO, said.

The facility would be a stainless steel bathroom that flushes and has running water. Open around the clock the U-Loo aims to provide one of the most basic needs to the general public of the U-District.

As the Portland Loo website states, this is a unique solution to a universal problem. That problem is heavily evident in the U-District, where many local restrooms are not available for public use and very few are available 24/7. Local businesses, even gas stations, don’t want homeless people using their facilities.

The goal of the UDP and, ultimately, the U-Loo, is to enhance immediate services to the homeless population and advocate for long-term systemic change.

But even these small steps, like adding a single public toilet, aren’t easy.

“Our estimate is that it’s going to cost $30,000 a year in order to keep it clean and keep it [stocked],” McCoury said. “We’ve been meeting with the city to discuss partnerships.”

Just last November, Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency concerning homelessness in the city.

Seattle has the third highest homeless population in the country, even though we’re only the 20th most populous city. According to the City of Seattle last November $5 million was allocated to provide solutions and preventative measures for existing and future homelessness. This money is in addition to the $40 million Seattle spends annually on homelessness.

Ruedi Risler, the past co-chair of the UDP Clean and Safe Committee, says that city is willing to pay for the $250,000 installation fee of the U-Loo, but will not cover the annual $30,000 maintenance fee.

This August, City Council member Rob Johnson agreed to the installation price, but when it came to the annual maintenance fee he said the City couldn’t find room in the budget, according to Risler.

“Maintenance is absolutely crucial,” he said, adding that in all other cases where these types of public toilets have been successfully implemented, the city has paid for it, Risler said.

“The city told us they didn’t have the money for [the U-Loo],” McCoury said. “We’re pushing hard but I don’t have the votes on the UDP board or the Ratepayer Advisory Board at the moment to push the project forward.”

Past projects similar to the U-Loo have crumbled in Seattle because of lack of maintenance and poor planning. In 2004, Seattle’s automated self-cleaning toilets failed in part because an accumulation of trash overwhelmed the self-cleaning function. Even providing run-of-the-mill Porta Potties in homeless encampments has proven to be a flawed solution because of the regular maintenance required.

The UDP says they have thoroughly assessed many of those historic challenges and have a viable action plan for the U-Loo. They’ve looked at cost, considered the successes and pitfalls of past projects, and have painstakingly researched viable locations. If funded, the Loo would be located on 15th Avenue behind the University Bookstore.

“It’s the perfect mix of a private and public space,” Risler said.

new bill on homelessness moving through the city council states that “the city has an interest in preventing the build-up of garbage, human waste, and other refuse at outdoor living spaces and other public spaces.”

Even if it passes, that interest might sound good on paper, but how genuine can it be if the City can’t seem to muster funding for the modest step in that direction like U-Loo?

The City Council is currently meeting to establish the budget for the coming year. Risler says he’s not confident that there will be any progress made on funding for U-Loo.

But Geri Morris, Councilmember Johnson’s legislative assistant, said that although the project didn’t make it into the initial budget last month, Johnson and Councilmember O’Brien are spearheading a green sheet, a mechanism used to modify the proposed budget, to include budgeting for Portland-style Loos in Ballard, the U-District, and possibly Pioneer Square.

The City Council is also looking to outside funding sources. They want to collaborate with chambers and Business Improvement Areas to leverage the funds.

This is progress, but no guarantee. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the budget on Nov. 9 and 10.