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This charity in Colorado wants to get more public toilets for unhoused people

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Like many places, Colorado has seen its homeless population grow substantially. It has more than doubled in the last decade. At the same time, the number of public restrooms has been decreasing in response to an increase in vandalism and people using drugs in them. It's a public sanitation problem governments across the country are struggling with. Colorado Public Radio's Stina Sieg reports on a nonprofit that is trying to fill the so-called toilet gap.

STINA SIEG, BYLINE: Back when Christopher Bickford was living in his car, it broke down outside his church in Grand Junction, Colo., one Sunday morning. Then he realized he had to go - you know. The church wasn't open yet, so Bickford frantically ran blocks and blocks to the nearest public bathroom in a park.

CHRISTOPHER BICKFORD: And I just missed it. Like, you know, when you got to go so bad and you get in that door, it's like it hits you even harder.

SIEG: The disabled vet has an apartment now. But when he was unhoused, soiling himself wasn't just embarrassing. It was complicated.

BICKFORD: Then I had to run back to my car, get clothes, get baby wipes and stuff, run back to that toilet.

SIEG: That bathroom is now closed. In the scenic small city bisected by the Colorado River, retired emergency room physician Paul Padyk is trying to help.

PAUL PADYK: You know, how many people raise their hand and say, oh, I'll manage poop?

SIEG: Padyk's nonprofit, Toilet Equity, has been building composting toilets since 2022 - small and simple wooden structures, like this one outside the Unitarian Universalist Church, with a mint green interior. It's got a urinal.

PADYK: If you need to sit, you can lift the toilet seat.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOILET SEAT TAPPING)

SIEG: Padyk was inspired to start Toilet Equity after traveling through parts of South America that had so few public bathrooms, human waste was out in the open.

PADYK: I mean, if you have unsheltered people, you have a toilet access issue. And if you don't have public toilets in your park spaces, you have a toilet access issue for everybody.

SIEG: Grand Junction has about two dozen public restrooms, proportionally far more than Denver or San Francisco. City Parks and Recreation director Ken Sherbenou says the city wants to provide bathrooms.

KEN SHERBENOU: But I do think that the days of having the great amount of convenience that Grand Junction once had for public restroom availability - I think that day has passed.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I brought this jacket.

SIEG: At this downtown park, the traditional bathroom structure is only open for limited hours, though there are portable toilets here and in other parks. Sherbenou says he's seen brick-and-mortar bathrooms trashed.

SHERBENOU: Graffiti in the stalls to busted fixtures.

SIEG: So the city is now cleaning and monitoring bathrooms more frequently. Soon, it'll install a self-cleaning restroom that's supposed to be vandalism-resistant - at the cost of $400,000. While Sherbenou hopes all these measures help...

(SOUNDBITE OF SWINGSET SQUEAKING)

SHERBENOU: I don't think there's a silver bullet, and I don't think any community in Colorado or in the country has found a silver bullet.

SIEG: So far, Toilet Equity has placed seven composting toilets around town, with the hope to build more in the future. Several are outside the city's resource center for unhoused people.

VICKIE SPENCER: Oh, it's wonderful.

SIEG: Vickie Spencer uses a wheelchair and says there are no wheelchair-accessible bathrooms near the city park where she's been living with her dog, Baby. She says this one is a blessing.

SPENCER: Yeah, there's only so many hours out of the day, you know? What do I do the rest of the time? Like I said, I wear diapers.

SIEG: The city has now installed an accessible portable toilet in the park where Spencer has been camped, but it's unclear whether she'll be there to use it. The city council has banned tents in public parks, effective this week.

For NPR News, I'm Stina Sieg in Grand Junction, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SARO TRIBASTONE'S "SERENADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stina Sieg
[Copyright 2024 NPR]