Broke in Philly

Philadelphia scales back pandemic porta-potties, raising concerns over potential ‘minefield of human feces’

Center City toilets are being cut from six to three, and moved down the block.

One Day At A Time employees Terri Wagner and John Smutnik staff the trio of porta-potties at their new 15th and Arch location

One Day At A Time employees Terri Wagner and John Smutnik staff the trio of porta-potties at their new 15th and Arch location

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
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The row of porta-potties installed in Center City during the pandemic is being scaled back and moved down the block. Advocates call the move “concerning” in light of what happened last summer, when they say human waste appeared frequently in the streets around City Hall.

Philadelphia does not have public restrooms, which poses major challenges for people without permanent housing. It’s long been a problem in Philly, said Darlene DiDomineck, executive director of The Center Philadelphia, a homeless services hub at the Arch Street United Methodist Church. But over the past 12 months, things came to a point she’s never seen before.

“Honestly it was a minefield of human feces,” DiDomineck said of the streets around the church at the corner of Broad and Arch. “So having those porta-potties for at least all winter has been really critical.”

With the pandemic far from fully over, DiDomineck wonders: Why scale back operations now, rather than add more permanent services?

With so many businesses closed or reducing their hours of operation because COVID, many of the usual restroom options have disappeared. The Center Philadelphia, the Free Library and Suburban Station’s Hub of Hope do make their bathrooms accessible to the public, but those and other similar options are only open during the day. People experiencing homelessness are forced to find creative solutions overnight.

Throughout the winter, they could use the six porta-potties lined up outside the Municipal Services Building — but now that collection is being reduced to three.

The trio of porta-potties is also being moved. They’ll be set up at 15th and Arch streets. The location, across from the northeast corner of LOVE Park, was chose to better serve people who frequent the plaza, said city spokesperson Mike Dunn.

Why the reduction? Dunn said the Center City toilets see an average of 271 people per week — totaling 1,400 weekly uses — a number he said would only take three  to get the job done.  “The number of units have decreased to three units,” he said, “which we believe is the right size fit based on use data.”

The standard ratio for work sites is one portable toilet for every 10 people. At events, like weddings, the recommendation is one for every 50 guests.

Though seemingly a small thing, porta-potties can make a big difference to people experiencing homelessless. When staffed by city employees, it turns out, they’re an opportunity for outreach.

Between March 16 and July 30, the six porta-potties on Monmouth Street in Kensington yielded 672 referrals to other services, like food, shelter, clothing, healthcare and medical treatment.

Kensington’s public toilets and sinks were first installed almost two years ago, after cases of Hepatitis A started popping up in the neighborhood.

During the pandemic, the city added more: a porta-potty at McPherson Square Park, and a bathroom trailer at LOVE Park — which was then swapped out for six porta-potties stationed outside MSB because of winter repair challenges, per Dunn. The city also got a handful of public sinks to increase hand-washing potential, set up near the toilets and at other locations like 30th Street Station.

DiDomineck is concerned about the city halving the number of porta-potties around her church. Ultimately, she hopes they’re replaced with something more permanent.

“This is really a dignity question,” she said. “Access to indoor plumbing…should be a basic human right in the United States. So if they’re going to scale back services, does that mean they’re going to open more public buildings for our folks to have access to restrooms at times our organizations can’t be open?”

For now, that’s unclear. The city will “continue to evaluate the situation” to determine whether the porta-potties stick around after the pandemic ends. Dunn said there are no current plans to install public restrooms anywhere in the city.

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