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Ursula Wurster, 27, John Todoroff, 37, and Jacob Hanson, 22, stand in the Portland Loo on Southwest Park and Columbia, one of six in the downtown area. The PSU students say the city is lacking public restroom facilities, and for their final Urban Studies project, they're giving people a voice -- a website, testimonials, and a crowd-sourced map of restrooms.
Sara Hottman/The Oregonian
A group of Portland State University urban studies students is trying to revive conversation about the lack of public restrooms citywide, which disproportionately hurts homeless people.
Students spent last term researching the issue and working with Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human, the Old Town-based advocacy group known as PHLUSH. They found that while the homeless population most consistently feels the lack of public facilities, just about everyone -- bikers, joggers, tourists, park-goers, residents who visit other parts of the city, elderly and pregnant people -- suffers from the shortage.
"Improving the quality of life of the houseless (with more public restrooms) will be a net benefit for the city as a whole," says Jacob Hanson, 22, part of the seven-member group of senior urban studies students.
The students' final project, "Right to Relief," focuses on giving people a voice on the scarcity of public restrooms and maintenance of existing facilities. This spring the students plan to launch a website and display a public art installation to raise awareness, and they're making a crowd-sourced map via Shareabouts.org. The public, online map will allow people to note good restroom locations and facilities that need cleaning and suggest areas to add public toilets. They hope that as people weigh in on the issue, solutions will emerge.
While the group was doing research on the waterfront last term, two elderly joggers stopped at some Honeybuckets, student Ursula Wurster, 29, recalled. They looked inside and kept going -- the toilets were too filthy to use.
"The first reaction (to public toilets) is often negative things, but not everyone is a drug user," Wurster says. "We're bridging the conversation among multiple populations that have the same issue. We're humanizing the issue."
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On Jan. 31, 2012, City Commissioner Randy Leonard helped christen the fifth Portland Loo to be installed, at Northwest Couch Street and Eighth Avenue. Children and staff from the nearby Emerson School help with The First Flush.
Bruce Ely / The Oregonian/file
PHLUSH and the PSU group praise the city for itsPortland Loos. The outdoor, stand-alone flushing toilets have hand-washing stations, are always open and are cleaned twice daily. Six were installedin Northwest and downtown Portland from 2008-12, and there are plans for a seventh to be installed on Northwest 13th Avenue and Overton Street. Each Loo costs roughly $25,000 to manufacture and $15,000 annually to maintain.
For years before the city unveiled its first Loo in December 2008, community leaders in Old Town-Chinatown had lobbied for public restrooms, in part to prevent the neighborhood's homeless population and bar patrons from relieving themselves outside.
Since then, however, the conversation about public hygiene has faded, says Carol McCreary, co-founder of PHLUSH. She notes popular tourist districts like the Pearl, Hawthorne, Belmont and Alberta lack public facilities.
"We absolutely need to have this discussion," she says. "We're waking up to this economic emergency that now requires very creative solutions."
Students are focusing on a portion of Southeast Portlandthey say particularly lacks public restrooms: Southeast Burnside to Division, from the eastside waterfront to 12th Avenue. But the issue spans the city, they say.
Carey White, who works with PHLUSH and stays in the Right 2 Dream Too homeless camp, was the first video testimonialfor the PSU students. He says the lack of facilities is dehumanizing, forcing homeless people to find a discrete place to go rather than a proper toilet. Students also discovered people used not-so discrete places -- on steps, in trash bins, behind Dumpsters.
"It's not anybody's first choice to go to the bathroom behind a Dumpster," Hanson says.
He points to the old, now out-of-commission public restroom buildings in many city parks as a solution, conceding there are costs that go along with maintaining them.
"There's a cost, yes," he says. "But it should be part of the planning discussion."
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PSU students say public facilities are lacking in Portland, with six Portland Loos and a smattering of porta-potties, such as these in Southeast Portland. For their final urban studies project, they're trying to revive conversation on the issue, which they say is of particular concern for homeless, elderly, and pregnant people.
Courtesy of PSU Urban Studies students
White's greatest plea is for TriMet to install public restrooms at transit centers. He named the Gresham Transit Center at 350 N.E. Eighth St. Many people end up there for medical appointments and social services in East Portland or Gresham, he says. With no restrooms, a commuter has to walk at least four blocks to the nearest bathroom, potentially missing an important transfer.
"Considering Portland is so commuter-friendly, it seems like there's a little bit of an oversight here," Wurster says.
Like everyone, Wurster says, she's been walking, biking or on MAX in the city and has had to go but couldn't find a usable public restroom.
Until the Right to Relief project, "I never thought about in the broader sense," she says. "Other people -- everyone -- has this same issue."