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There are just 5 bathrooms for the 1800 people living on Skid Row

File: A tent stands on E Sixth Street at Gladys Avenue in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
A tent stands on E Sixth Street at Gladys Avenue in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015. Without shelter space, LA's homeless turn to using tents.

This summer, the paint on the outside of the Union Rescue Mission began to chip away.

The cause?

Sunlight and urine. The combination damaged the walls of the mission on Skid Row, and eventually Andy Bales, the mission's CEO, had to resort to urine-proof paint.

"We desperately need more public restrooms [on Skid Row]," Bales said, pointing to the wall. "We often clean, but you can see all the stains here."

Less than 10 feet away stands one of Skid Row's five public restrooms, a structure the size of a small cubicle. Each one has only one toilet and one sink inside. To gain access, a user pushes a button to open the door, similar to using an elevator. After stepping inside, the user is given several minutes to use the toilet before the door automatically unlocks and springs back open. The toilets self-clean after each use. Despite the self-cleaning mechanism and regular visits from L.A. Sanitation crews, Skid Row's bathrooms are not known for being clean facilities.

Bales wants more public restrooms for the estimated 1,800 unsheltered people living on Skid Row. To illustrate the shortage, he referred to a chart from a port-a-potty rental website, which helps calculate how many toilets are needed for large-scale events, like concerts. The chart shows that more than 50 toilets would be needed to accommodate a crowd of 1,800 people over a 24-hour period.

Bales pointed to human waste along the street. In the past, periodic rains would wash away much of it, he said, but the drought and summer heat has made for an unhealthy situation.

"I'm in a wheelchair because I got strep, staph and E. coli," Bales said, as he wheeled through the Skid Row streets, adding that people living there have also contracted those illnesses over time.

Wendell Blassingame, who represents Skid Row on the Downtown LA Neighborhood Council, said people living on Skid Row can walk up to four blocks before finding a toilet. He said every block in the area needs its own bathroom to meet the demand.

He also described problems with the existing bathrooms. Blassingame said some people have gotten stuck inside the bathrooms because the automated doors will not unlock. On more than one occasion, he has stopped to help free people from the locked pod.

As Bales passed people encamped on Skid Row, he shook their hands, wearing gloves because of his weakened immune system. Many passersby spoke of the "bad stuff" that happens in the area's few public restrooms: prostitution, drug use and violence. Some people have died of drug overdoses inside the units, Bales said.

"[The restrooms] are wonderful if they are used properly as a restroom facility," he said. "The problem is they are also misused."

Last month, he said, one of his co-workers was approached by three men as he walked out of the Union Rescue Mission's front doors. They dragged him inside the restroom and beat him.

In San Francisco and Sacramento, "Pit-Stop" programs have attempted to secure public restrooms to prevent misuse. Rachel Gordon from San Francisco's Department of Public Works said the city hired attendants to keep watch over 15 public restroom locations during the day.

"What we've seen is that the usage keeps going up," Gordon said. "The bathrooms are now a safe, clean place to go."

But in Skid Row, restrooms are left unattended. Bales said he plans to bring his ideas of hiring attendants and installing security cameras to future Los Angeles City Council meetings.

"There's not enough of them, and there needs to be a new way of ensuring that they're used as restrooms," he said.

When contacted by KPCC, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said there is no record of a recent outbreak of waste-born illnesses on Skid Row. In 2013, when the Los Angeles Community Action Network surveyed Skid Row's five public restrooms, the structures were open, clean and equipped with supplies 32 percent of the time.