Addressing years-long concerns about basic human needs and health hazards, the city of Eugene says it will add three public restrooms downtown on a trial basis in coming weeks.
In an email to Eugene Weekly, Eric Brown, Eugene’s downtown manager, writes that in addition to remodeling existing restrooms at the 10th and Oak parking garage, the city will “rebrand” the restroom trailer at the Park Blocks and add a portable restroom and hand-washing station at the St. Vincent de Paul’s day storage pod between the Kiva and the downtown public library.
Brown also writes all three locations will be available 24/7 and equipped with sharps containers.
But they could soon be closed again, at the city’s discretion.
“We want to make it clear that our highest priority is that these restrooms are clean and safe for everyone,” Brown writes. “They will be left unlocked with unrestricted access so long as they are respected. If they do not remain clean and safe, we will have to close them temporarily or permanently, or restrict access.”
He adds the city will provide signage and handouts for the public.
Eugene City Councilor Emily Semple, who has long advocated for downtown restrooms, says the locations will be monitored but also adds that success depends upon people’s behavior.
“The plea to everyone is to make this work because if we have to go to locking them and having attendants, the cost skyrockets,” Semple says. “This way, we can use our Downtown Ambassadors and security we’ve already hired, and we’d only have to hire one more person to cover.”
Semple says the new restroom facilities will be funded for the coming year with a $120,000 budget she proposed and the city budget committee passed unanimously May 22.
The push for more public restrooms downtown has been going on for years.
Local homeless advocate Sue Sierralupe began lobbying for more restrooms downtown in 2011 during the Occupy Eugene movement. Sierralupe says that, at the time, she and Semple — who was not then a city councilor — recognized the need and saw it wasn’t just a matter of public comfort but also a matter of public safety and humanitarian concerns.
“This is something everyone has to do — even people who are unhoused,” Sierralupe says. “And if they’re forced to do it outside because the city thinks that by not having restrooms they are discouraging the unhoused from being downtown, that creates a public health hazard.”
Sierralupe also says the lack of public restrooms affects downtown tourism. The lack of facilities has discouraged her from visiting more frequently, and she says she sees the lack as a possible hindrance for others.
“If you wanted to visit downtown for an afternoon and you had kids, that could be a big problem,” she says. “I live close to downtown so it’s not a big deal for me, but it could keep a lot of other people away.”
Sierralupe says business owners she’s talked to support more restrooms in the downtown area.
Most downtown businesses reserve their restrooms for customers. But, when asked, three establishments allowed access to a reporter who was reporting this story.
Additionally, one man waiting for the restroom in the Broadway Commerce Center building, which is locked and only available to customers and employees, said he was neither a customer nor an employee, but one of the businesses was “usually pretty cool” about using the restroom.
People who are unhoused relay a different experience, though.
Joe Crowder, who is unhoused, says restroom access is a hurdle for him. “The bathrooms in Eugene, they need quite a few more,” he says. He adds that the portable toilet at the Overpark is gross so that leaves the library and the bus station, and that if he asks businesses, he is turned away.
A group of unhoused youth becomes animated at the mention of restrooms. Jude Rain says that on the previous evening she needed to change her tampon, but because there wasn’t a restroom she used an alley. “That’s crazy unsanitary,” she says. “That’s how people get infections.”
Unsanitary conditions, however, led Thomas Pettus-Czar, owner of The Barn Light, to stop allowing public use of his business’s restrooms. He says access to restrooms is a basic human right, and everyone should be able to safely relieve themselves, but after repeatedly finding drug paraphernalia, action was needed.
“We didn’t always have this policy, but once the needles started showing up, that’s when the policy changed,” he says. “I can’t speak for other businesses, but I know through conversations that we’re not the only ones dealing with this.”
Pettus-Czar says he supports more public restrooms downtown, and three aren’t nearly enough.