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In late 2017, the city of San Diego developed a public health crisis involving an outbreak of Hepatitis A among the city’s population of homeless residents, which arose as a result of personal contact with others who were openly defecating in public areas without facilities to wash their hands. At least 20 deaths in the city have been directly attributed to the outbreak of the virus.
In response, San Diego County sought to stop the spread of the outbreak of infection in part by placing temporary toilets in the downtown areas where many of the city’s homeless residents who had been infected with Hepatitis were congregating. At an estimated cost of anywhere from $85.80 per month for a basic unit to $225.80 per month for a unit fully compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, the cost of placing sixteen porta-potty facilities with hand-washing stations where they could be used by the city’s homeless population should have been a very cost-effective means to prevent additional deaths from the city’s Hepatitis A outbreak.
Except it wasn’t. And the reason it wasn’t is that the cost that San Diego County is incurring to provide security to its 16 porta-potties. Jeff McDonald of the San Diego Union Tribune reports:
Since last fall, when officials began fighting a hepatitis A outbreak by installing temporary toilets in areas where homeless people congregate, San Diego County has spent more than $500,000 on security guards to protect the rented restrooms.
The protection costs, thousands of dollars every day, are ongoing. The existing contracts, signed in September and October, have been amended multiple times and now run through February.
County leaders say the security is needed to prevent unwelcome elements often associated with the homelessness community where the infection was deadly — crime, drug use, prostitution and worse.
“We have placed 24/7 security at the portable restroom locations to maintain a safe and secure environment for both the users of the restrooms and the surrounding communities,” county spokesman Michael Workman said by email….
Through Jan. 10, the county spent $531,739.85 on security for the units. The costs continue to pile up at a rate of approximately $286 an hour, or $6,864 a day.
What kind of service is San Diego County getting for its $6,864 per day of around-the-clock porta-potty security?
The contracts call for security officers to monitor how many people use the restrooms. Guards also are told to make sure that only one person uses a bathroom at a time and they spend no more than 10 minutes inside.
One guard stationed along Riverside Drive in Lakeside said he makes a note of each bathroom visit during his eight-hour shift. He passes the notebook on to his successor at each change of shift. Someone from the county stops by regularly and snaps a photo of the latest written record.
Half-way through a recent shift, the report showed four people had used the bathroom.
“Most of the people who use the bathroom are just walking by,” said the guard, who did not want to be named because he feared losing his job. “They’re not homeless.”
If that doesn’t sound like a terribly efficient use of taxpayer dollars for preventing the spread of Hepatitis A among the city’s homeless residents, that’s because it isn’t. A quick internet search confirms that a fully furnished motel room in downtown San Diego can be rented for $72 per day, which would mean that up to 95 homeless people could be individually housed per day for what San Diego’s county government is spending just to protect its rented porta-potties 24 hours a day.
But at least San Diegans can now have secured access to a continuously-monitored porta-potty for up to 10 whole minutes at considerable public expense when they want it.