.UPDATED: Everybody poops, yet stingy San Rafael stymies sanitation

Editor’s Note: This article was updated with additional information on Monday, Dec. 11.

Homeless people cite many challenges when it comes to living outside. Lack of public restrooms is always a chief concern.

For about nine months, the City of San Rafael has repeatedly refused to pony up for porta-potties and handwashing stations at a homeless encampment on the Mahon Creek Path.

Approximately 20 homeless people relocated to the Mahon Creek Path in March, after the city evicted them from Albert Park, which has bathrooms. It seemed the least the city could do was provide a couple of toilets at the new site, dubbed Camp Integrity by the campers.

A homeless activist, Robbie Powelson, says he asked city officials numerous times about paying for porta-potties and they shot down the idea. In July, I asked City Councilmember Rachel Kertz and San Rafael’s assistant director of community development, Chris Hess, why.

“We’re not doing that,” Hess answered, without further explanation.

Fortunately, Powelson took matters into his own hands soon after Camp Integrity was established. He set up a GoFundMe page for donations to buy a handwashing station and rent a single porta-potty for the campers. Within a week, the Honey Bucket arrived.

Every month, the GoFundMe barely raises enough money to pay the bill. The handwashing station broke, so the campers now rent that device, too. The population of the camp gradually doubled, which created the need for an additional porta-potty and handwashing station. Currently, two toilets accommodate more than 40 people.

The monthly bill totals $610. However, the December invoice jumped to almost $1,200 because the porta-potties had to be moved down the path. Powelson sent out an urgent email requesting donations.

A generous contribution soon arrived from Frank Shinneman, a retired CEO who volunteers his time for social justice issues. Not only did Shinneman donate $500, but he also challenged San Rafael Mayor Kate Colin and the other city councilmembers to match his gift.


Dear Mayor Kate,

I want to wish you and your council peace and health this holiday season. While we have disagreed over resource policy this year, I believe that as individuals you are all caring and compassionate. I fully understand the constraints of your guidance of a municipality compared to your personal desires. 

I want to give you an opportunity to publicly demonstrate your personal generosity and goodwill by challenging you to match my $500 contribution of one month’s cost for bathrooms at Camp Integrity. If each of you accepts this challenge, your most needy residents will be assured the minimum hygienic resources through the spring of next year. 

Hygiene facilities are amongst the most fundamental of human rights. To intentionally degrade people by denying toilet facilities is unnecessary torment and tantamount to incitement to break the law. 

Attached you will find notice of my contribution as well as a link for you to make a contribution.

Best Regards,
Frank Shinneman


A little more than three hours later, Colin replied to Shinneman’s email. Apparently, she has no intention of opening her own pocketbook.


Mr. Shinneman,

Thanks for caring about all members of our community. The City continues to work with the ‘Camp Integrity’ plaintiffs in the lawsuit (as you know the City is currently being sued) and as the City will be entering into a settlement agreement, items like the one you suggest will be considered. The City is committed to working with advisors who have ‘lived experience’ with homelessness and their input will be important when considering the prioritization of limited resources.

Warmly,
Kate


There’s a lot to unpack in the mayor’s three sentences. First, many of those living at Camp Integrity sued San Rafael after city officials passed an ordinance limiting the size and number of homeless campsites allowed in an area. Although the ordinance required that more than half of the campers leave the Mahon Creek Path, it didn’t address where they could go.

Colin’s email seems to suggest that San Rafael will only pay for the porta-potties as part of a lawsuit settlement. Are toilets for homeless people now the city’s bargaining chip?

And if resources are limited, should San Rafael spend its budget fighting a lawsuit about an ordinance that should never have been passed in the first place or on toilets for homeless people? Crying poor seems especially absurd since city officials have acknowledged they expected to be sued over the severely restrictive camping ordinance.

Finally, Colin says that the city will seek input from people who have experienced homelessness to determine whether porta-potties are a priority.

C’mon, Mayor Kate. Shinneman, who is a human being, already explained to you that it’s a matter of dignity for people to have access to toilets. Are you really saying that only those with “lived experience” can verify that people don’t want to poop on the sidewalk in front of strangers?

I contacted Jason Sarris, a member of the Marin Lived Experience Advisory Board—a group appointed by the county to give guidance on homelessness policies— to find out if he believes porta-potties are a top priority for homeless people. Not surprisingly, he does.

Sarris spent a decade living on the streets and remembers the difficulty of finding bathrooms. While a few grocery stores and gas stations remain open 24/7 and allow the public to use the facilities, he couldn’t always find a spot near the stores to camp. In fact, Sarris developed gastrointestinal issues from not eliminating.

“I didn’t want to poop without using a bathroom,” Sarris said. “I tried to have a routine, but in camp life, you don’t eat when you want—you eat when you get food.”

Sarris confirmed that the Marin Lived Experience Advisory Board met with representatives from San Rafael this week. They discussed porta-potties, and Sarris recommended that the city provide the portable toilets for its homeless residents.

The next question is, of course, will San Rafael begin paying for the porta-potties and handwashing stations at Camp Integrity? I asked.

Hess, the city’s assistant director of community development, responded via email. Actually, he sent two emails, the first indicating that porta-potties and handwashing stations are among the recommendations under consideration.

A few minutes later, a second email arrived, stating that I should use this “tighter response,” which contained no mention of porta-potties or handwashing stations. Instead, Hess said that the city would conduct a needs assessment with the homeless people living on Mahon Creek Path. I emailed and called Hess for clarification but didn’t receive a reply by publication deadline.

Shinneman’s attempt at shaming the mayor and city council didn’t work. Powelson’s pleading has fallen on deaf ears. The Marin Lived Experience Advisory Board appeared to make some impact, yet not enough for the city to commit to anything but a needs assessment.

How many more people, homeless or housed, must tell the City of San Rafael that humans need toilets?


Hours after the publication deadline, the City of San Rafael abandoned its gobbledygook messaging and finally responded with some straight talk. Assistant City Manager John Stefanski sent an email to the ‘Pacific Sun’ revealing that the city will provide porta-potties and handwashing stations for the homeless campers.

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].

13 COMMENTS

  1. So those two are still trying to hold cities hostage. Ever wonder what share of “Go Fund Me” monies they get?

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  2. So Craig, it’s “holding cities hostage” when there is an effort to keep human waste out of sidewalks and public parks, where even YOU might step in it? And do you really want to see grown men and women defecating and urinating publicly? I’ve read enough of your comments to know you scream about that too. Truth is, you don’t think poor people should have anything at all. Happy holidays.

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  3. Shame on you Mayor Kate. You allow camp sites but refuse to pay for porta potties. Don’t you see the disconnect there? I wrote to our representatives about this issue several times and never heard back. What is the problem? This is a major health issue for the houseless and the community. Have you driven on Andersen drive lately? Trash is everywhere and no bathrooms. Please do the right thing and install bathrooms. It’s the least we can do. Of course the best we can do is provide housing.

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  4. Adding more portapotties is a temporary solution. Having housed dozens of homeless people in my former role for the County, I don’t think the answer is moving people from park to path. Traveling on Andersen yes, there are makeshift sheds, tents, garbage and garbage bags strewn along the way. It isn’t safe for children from the nearby school (or adults) to walk along the Creek path. I suggest building a permanent community space away from central SR with efficiency studios + bathroom facilities for each unit, with supportive mental health services at the site. And, not allowing camping all over town. This is not “NIMB.” It is saying that everyone deserves a roof over their head, but at the same time, it is not okay to desecrate the neighborhood with trash and human waste.

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  5. Having some “skin in the game” might be helpful in this situation. The 99.xx% of the population that does have skin in the game might see this as a viable stepping stone.

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    • Kudos to whoever made that complaint to the Cal EPA. Those bum shanty towns are disgusting and it is terrible what is being allowed to happen to the creek.

      The people at the corner of Anderson were having a nice toke on something when I showed up for tennis at 8am. Smelled like napalm, but think it was crack. Was going to ask one of the several Davidson middle school kids walking by what they thought it smelled like, but then the aroma of fecal matter started dominating.

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  6. Dear Mayor Kertz and City Councilmembers,

    I am writing to strongly advocate for the basic human needs of our unhoused neighbors in San Rafael. Each and every person in our community deserves to have their dignity respected, whether they are housed or unhoused. Fir unhoused people, providing access to clean restrooms and handwashing facilities should not be a point of contention, but rather a compassionate and necessary act of support (at a minimum).

    No person should have to navigate life without these basic resources. The experience of homelessness is already dehumanizing enough without additional obstacles being placed in the way of hygiene and health. As leaders sworn to serve all members of our community, it is your moral duty to ensure these facilities are supplied without delay or precondition.

    I urge you to heed the wise counsel of those with lived experience of homelessness, like members of the Marin Lived Experience Advisory Board, who clearly communicate that toilets and handwashing stations are amongst the most urgent of needs. Their guidance deserves our attentive listening and response.

    This is not a matter that requires more assessment or negotiation – the need is clear and the solution straightforward. I ask that you find it within your power and principles to approve city funds for portable toilets and hygiene facilities at Camp Integrity without further obstruction. Our unhoused neighbors are deserving of nothing less than our full respect and support. A just society is one where all people can meet their basic human needs with dignity.

    Thank you for your consideration. I have faith that you will make the compassionate choice.

    Sincerely,
    Shalom Ormsby
    Concerned Citizen of San Rafael

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    • Thank you for your letter which is clear, thought through and well-written. I certainly hope that a majority of San Rafael taxpayers agree with your assessment.
      Any chance that you’ll run for supervisor in the next election? I find the actions of our current “leaders” both lacking common sense and embarrassing.

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  7. Homeless should be camping at China Camp State Park where there are facilities, instead of trashing public spaces.

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  8. To those demanding free toilets: get a job (start small, work your way up, they’re out there), live where you can afford it, get your own toilets. In other words, act responsibly for a change, take care of yourself and your loved ones, and respect the rights of those who do.

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  9. Why is no one mentioning the terrible turds that those glass straws with the little bowl on the end, the ones that they hold the lighters to, gives them?! It is inhumane to not have a porta potty when we know how severe the side effects of that stuff is!

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