On The Go: Denver's Roving Restrooms Tackle a Basic Need

Denver has discovered that public toilets are a public necessity. Find out, number one, how the city is dealing with a messy situation in its alleys by experimenting with mobile restrooms – and, number two, about the men on the front lines who provide users with a clean facility.
There's one on East Colfax Avenue and one along the 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver – a couple of bright blue trailers, proudly advertising “Denver: The Mile High City.”

But that's not the only graphic on these government buildings.

They also bear the universal icons for “male” and “female” and “handicapped” that are seen on restroom doors. And their purpose is announced in multiple languages: baño público in Spanish, musqulaha dadweynaha in Somali, ????? in Japanese, and nhà v? sing công c?ng in Vietnamese. In familiar English, they declare themselves a “Public Restroom,” and in more old-school English, perhaps for visitors from the U.K. and Europe, a “WC.”

These don’t look like the prevalent and uninviting port-a-potties no one wants to use: The stalls have a toilet and urinal that flush with running water, and there's a working sink. Compared to many public restrooms, they're tidier, and smell of disinfectant and floor cleaner.

And, Denver officials hope, the new Public Restroom Pilot Project facilities will be attractive enough to end what they see as a growing nuisance in a developing city: People using alleys and parks to take care of their most personal of businesses.

“Just like we provide benches, street lighting, it's a public necessity,” says Public Works Department spokeswoman Nancy Kuhn. “It's a basic need.”

What the data saysThe two mobile units continue to roll on to different locations along the 16th Street Mall and East Colfax Avenue.

Denver's Public Works Department is overseeing the rollout of the mobile units and collecting information along the way. They want to determine where public restrooms are needed the most, who's using them and whether they cut back on complaints from businesses and residents concerning human waste in the city's alleys. They cost $15,000 a month, and are run by Liberty Waste Management, which the city already contracted for portable restrooms. A portion of that monthly fee is spent on attendants, who oversee the cleanliness of the units and the safety of the area, as well as for maintenance workers, who empty the tanks at night and perform repairs.

What has the city found so far?

According to Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech there is a clear need right now for the mobile restrooms. As many as one hundred users take advantage of each unit per day and residents in the surrounding areas are reporting cleaner environments. The units need to be visible, not off-the-beaten path, to attract users. And contrary to what many might expect, it isn't just homeless people accessing them. Three quarters of the users downtown are tourists, commuters, bike riders, or business patrons, according to data collected. “It's not just one segment of our community that needs restrooms,” says Kniech. “It's multiple segments.”

According to Kniech, the Mayor's office had been fielding complaints from residents of the Ballpark neighborhood regarding human waste. Kniech heard similar gripes from businesses and residents near East Colfax Avenue. To highlight the problem and graphically depict the need for additional public restrooms, Kniech had complaints to the police (which sometimes result in charges of public urination or indecency) and complaints logged by the city's 311 phone system operators charted.

It was after homeless activists, home owners, and a church (which found its grounds being used as a toilet) brought the issue to officials' attention that the city acted. Kniech says, “This is an example of the community taking a problem to government and asking government to get involved.”

Now, the conversation gets realDenver has discovered that public toilets are a public necessity.

In initiating its pilot restroom program, Denver drew from other cities' experiences with outdoor units. Kniech says, “San Francisco actually inspired the mobile unit idea, because they were using the '[San Francisco] Pit Stop.'”

But Denver also took note that San Diego had crime problems after its introduction of “The Portland Loo.” According to Kniech, Denver decided that whatever outdoor units were going to be used, they needed to be accompanied by on-site supervision. Kniech says, “We made a decision that attendants are critical to the success of this program, because they provide a kind of a deterrence effect from bad behavior, and they can help monitor the safety of the surrounding area.”

Attendants make sure people aren't damaging the units. They clean the toilets and walls and floors. They assist with wheelchair access. They fill the generator, which powers the units, with gasoline. Usually, they conduct brief surveys of users, asking them for their zip codes and what brings them to the neighborhood.

They also perform a “courtesy check” after five minutes, knocking on the stall door and asking, “Are you okay?,” according to attendant Paul Grogan, who works at the East Colfax unit.  If attendants suspect someone is having a medical issue, they call 911. Grogan says that, thankfully, he's never had to call for an ambulance. (Like many public restrooms, they also have a syringe disposal.)

As far as statistics go, attendants have noticed that more men than women use the units. John Atencio, who mans the unit downtown, notes that men are more comfortable using them “because women have a thing about port-a-potties, because they have to sit down. That's why I try to keep it clean.”

Not that there aren't accidents, on occasion. “Just horrible,” says Grogan, who has to clean soiled stalls.

Grogan knows that some people are against the public restrooms, accusing them of “catering to the homeless people.” But Grogan also has had residents – who were at first against the unit in their neighborhood – come to him after the unit had moved to its next location after a month, and say, “The alley's horrible again. It's disgusting. Come back!”

There now appears to be widespread support for more public restrooms in the city. In an opinion piece in the Denver Post, Dennis Ryerson, a retired journalist and Ballpark neighborhood resident, wrote, “Lack of public toilets often is thought of as an issue only for the homeless. But what about tourists, pregnant women, the one-third of men over age 50 with urinary dysfunction, the throngs exiting baseball games and nightspots, families with children, older people and those with medical issues from colitis to bladder infections?”

Grogan agrees that a need is being met: “A lot of people are just so happy that this is here. They get off the bus and they're like, 'Oh, my god! I need to go the bathroom, and I didn't know where I was going to go. This thing is a blessing!'”

Kniech says the city will likely discontinue the mobile units at some point in the future, perhaps installing permanent structures in a few locales.

But for now, the two mobile units continue to roll on to different locations along the 16th Street Mall and East Colfax Avenue.

Atencio says people from out-of-state have been particularly impressed with Denver's mobile units. However, not all tourists find them unique: Atencio has encountered visitors from Australia and Europe, who've told him about the outdoor, public restrooms in their own countries.

“[The restrooms are] not a big surprise to them,” he says. “But most people from the States, it's like, 'We don't have this at home!'”


Read more articles by Gregory Daurer.

Gregory Daurer is a Denver-based freelance writer and singer-songwriter, whose credits include 5280, WestwordSalon, Draft and High Times. He's also authored the novel A Western Capitol Hill.
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