Roland Whirley sits outside his PitStop facility, ready to greet those needing to go and to point them toward the handwashing station when they exit. Photos by Kait Leonard.
While maintaining as much distance as possible, people are lined up on a downtown sidewalk, waiting. Some read newspapers, others engage in small talk, and some quietly watch the occasional passing car. A uniformed attendant donning rubber gloves manages the event.
Given our current orders to stay at home as much as possible, why are these people lined up? They are waiting for their turn to use the toilet. The Pit Stop facilities are one of the hottest attractions in Skid Row. The scarcity of bathrooms in areas with significant unhoused populations is not new, nor is it connected to COVID-19. In light of the current crisis, however, the need for sanitary conditions has become paramount.
Anyone who has ever walked by a homeless encampment has been assaulted by the smell of human waste. The lack of public facilities forces unhoused people to relieve themselves on streets, in doorways, and in bags that are then discarded in waste bins, when bins are available. A shocking report from the 2017 audit, conducted by the Central Providers Collaborative, Skid Row Community Residents and Partners, revealed that conditions for the homeless fell far short of the standards set by the United Nations for refugee camps. Previous attempts to provide restroom facilities failed, as bathrooms became private spaces used to conduct unlawful activities like drug sales and prostitution.
In the face of the Hepatitis A outbreak in 2017, the Los Angeles City Council and the Mayor authorized the implementation of the mobile Pit Stop program, according to Heather Johnson, Principal Public Relations Representative for Los Angeles Sanitation. Using some out-of-the-box problem solving and recruiting the help of the perfect partners, the city gave both housed and unhoused Angelenos a reason for optimism. The Pit Stop program launched in March 2020, and due to its success is expanding citywide. On March 1, one of the most heavily trafficked locations in Skid Row became a fully staffed, 24-hour facility.
To truly appreciate the effort that went into the current program and its younger sibling, Shower Stop, itâ€™s important to be aware of all the pieces of the puzzle that came together to make it a reality. First, the City of Los Angeles had to create a budget for the program and find the right partners to support its day-to-day operation. In 2017, a partnership with Five Keys Schools and Programs was formed, according to Dave Bates, Director of Reentry and Transitional Employment for Five Keys.
In San Francisco, Hunters Point Family already had a successful Pit Stop program. Five Keys came onboard to oversee expansion of the project to Los Angeles and to provide operational oversight. They then subcontracted with Urban Alchemy to handle staffing needs. To identify staff, Urban Alchemy connected with Amity Foundation and Chrysalis, two organizations dedicated to empowering marginalized people by helping them acquire skills needed to reenter the workforce.
With the complicated pieces in place, a picture of success began to emerge. The Pit Stop program is now bringing some measure of dignity to the lives of the unhoused population as well as to the formerly incarcerated individuals who staff the facilities.
In spite of these wins, however, the situation in Skid Row remains dire. The number of toilets continues to fall extremely short of what is called for by the UN, and city streets still need pressure washing to minimize the health risks created by the unsanitary living conditions in the encampments. In addition, a handful of local politicians argue that the money allotted to the Pit Stops could be better spent providing shelter, thus removing the need for the toilets. Some Angelenos fear that providing toilets enables encampments, making it harder to get people off the streets.
These concerns have merit. We have a long way to go to solve the problems associated with homelessness. But before judging the Pit Stop program, it is valuable to listen to the people who know it best, those who run it, staff it, and use it.
Hattyrunn Hunter proudly displays the cleanliness of his PitStop facility.
Unsurprisingly, the management team wants to view Pit Stops in the best light possible. But their enthusiasm goes beyond simple support of a project. â€śItâ€™s my baby,â€ť says Bates. â€śIâ€™m really proud of this program, what weâ€™ve been able to do, taking men and women from long-term prison placements and preparing them for jobs. This is a success.â€ť When Bates talks, you hear his enthusiasm in every word.
He describes taking individuals who have been in prison for â€ś20, 30, 35 yearsâ€ť and placing them in a Pit Stop facility to get hands-on job experience. They also go through a five-week training program to learn cell phone etiquette, how to use email, basic computer skills, and job interview skills. Participants even participate in mock interviews. Bates speaks with pride about graduates who have gone on to work for Los Angeles Metro or for nonprofit organizations as case managers. From this perspective, there is no questioning the success of the Pit Stops.
To further assess the program, the opinions of those who staff the toilet stations should be considered. How do they feel about cleaning, stocking, and monitoring toilets all day?
â€śTheyâ€™re embracing the program with enthusiasm,â€ť says Bates. He says the workers are grateful for a chance to play productive roles in a society from which they have been alienated for a very long time. But donâ€™t take his word for it.
At the facility on the corner of Fifth and San Pedro, you might meet Hattyrun Hunter as he tends to two toilets and a hand-washing station. Hattyrun is a young man who proudly describes himself as â€śone of the best workers anywhere.â€ť Before he will allow you to use the toilet, heâ€™ll double check the already pristine facility for cleanliness. It must come up to his standard before you can enter. At another location, you will find Roland Whirley. Roland smiles at everyone entering the toilet, and upon exit, he points them to the hand-washing station. If you ask him what he thinks of his work, heâ€™ll say, â€śItâ€™s the best job I ever had.â€ť
Both Hattyrun and Roland have faced challenges. Now, they are proud of what they do and grateful for the opportunity to serve the community. These Pit Stop workers prove the power of the second chance.
To understand how the program impacts the lives of the unhoused people of Skid Row, all you need to do is look around the facilities. Men and an occasional woman wait calmly in line. The surrounding pavement is cleaner than areas that donâ€™t have toilet facilities. Tents and lean-tos cluster nearby attesting to the fact that people want to be close enough to make use of the toilets. And why wouldnâ€™t they? The people living on the streets of Skid Row survive without so many things that housed people take for granted. One of these is certainly the dignity that comes with privacy.
Pit Stops arenâ€™t the answer to homelessness. They wonâ€™t ensure that people on the streets wonâ€™t be hit by the coronavirus. Without question, the unhoused should be using bathrooms in their own apartments or in residential facilities. And people with criminal records should be given routes back into society from all sectors of the community, not just from a few nonprofits.
There are many â€śshouldsâ€ť that need to be turned into realities. In the meantime, the creative thinking and serious effort by the City of Los Angeles, Five Keys Schools and Programs, Urban Alchemy and their partners, proves that the dire situation of homelessness can be transformed. The path to a solution is not simple, and there is a long way to go. But when you sleep on the pavement with only the clothes on your back as shelter, any improvement is profound.