Traci Park speaks to a police officer.
Photo via lacity.gov.

Since taking office, LA City Councilmember Traci Park has removed hygiene programs — including toilets, handwashing stations, and showers — for unhoused people across the Westside of Los Angeles. 

Park, who ran on a platform of clearing encampments, represents District 11, which in-part includes Brentwood, Mar Vista, Ladera, Venice, and Playa Vista. According to emails received via public records requests to multiple departments, Park’s team requested that hygiene programs managed by Mayor Bass’ office and by the Board of Public Works be removed. 

According to a recent newsletter from Park, homelessness in District 11 has increased by 73%. Despite this increase in the unhoused population asserted by her own office, Park has continued to remove hygiene programs.

This also reflects a broader dilemma: Instead of managing hygiene programs at the city or county level as a public health issue, Los Angeles gives each councilmember, including Park, discretion over services in their district.

When CD11 staff requested that hygiene stations be removed, the mayor’s office offered no pushback, records show. In contrast, Lakesha Williams, director of the Unified Homelessness Response Center, responded to a July request from CD14 staff by asking, “Have the unhoused individuals from this location been placed into interim housing?”

Requests from Juan Fregoso, currently the homelessness and housing director for Traci Park, received no such pushback. LA Public Press reached out to the mayor’s office to ask about what kind of oversight UHRC provides for the program but received no response. LA Public Press also reached out to Park’s office about the removals, as well as the suggested increase in homelessness in the district, but did not hear back. 

The Pit Stop program and the Portable Hygiene program

LA has two programs that provide portable bathrooms and handwashing stations for unhoused people, the Pit Stop program and the Portable Hygiene program. Both are funded through Homeless Housing, Assistance and Prevention dollars, a state grant targeting homelessness.

The Pit Stop program started as a pilot in 2018 in the wake of a hepatitis A outbreak in LA County. The program staffs permanent and portable bathrooms at 16 locations with ambassadors who monitor them and keep them clean. Urban Alchemy staffed the bathrooms until August 2022 when Christ-Centered Ministries took over. The Shower Stop program deploys mobile shower trailers at about 14 locations, usually at least once a week. The Board of Public Works would not provide a list of current Pit Stop and Shower Stop locations after multiple follow-up requests.

The Portable Hygiene program was first implemented at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, rapidly deploying 182 portable toilets and 363 handwashing stations at encampments across the city. The program is overseen by the UHRC in the mayor’s office and currently has about 45 toilets and 46 handwashing stations.

At the beginning of this year, Traci Park’s district had four Portable Hygiene locations, two Pit Stop locations and two Shower Stop locations.

In January, the Pit Stop in Venice at 3rd and Rose was removed at the request of Park’s office and the mayor’s office as part of Mayor Bass’ Inside Safe initiative. In June, the district removed three hygiene stations. The remaining station was removed in early August when Park cleared the RV encampment at the Ballona Wetlands. Finally, on October 24, the encampment at Venice and Globe was targeted for Inside Safe, and the final hygiene station — part of the Pit Stop program — was removed.

According to records from the Board of Public Works, the last day of Shower Stop service at 3rd and Rose in Venice was April 25. And according to a daily schedule posted online by The Shower of Hope, the last day of shower service at Venice and Globe was November 3 (LA Public Press has reached out to CD11 for confirmation).

A bitter and contentious history

Bathrooms and showers for unhoused people have had a contentious history on the Westside, especially in Venice.

In 2017, anti-homeless activists spread reports about an MRSA (a kind of bacterial infection) outbreak at the Lava Mae mobile showers at Venice Beach, reports that were later contradicted by the LA County Department of Public Health

“It was sort of a ‘If you provide it, they will come’ mentality,'” said Mike Bonin, former councilmember for CD11. “If you open a toilet at Venice Beach, every homeless person in Los Angeles will come here to use it.”

“I know of no research study that says that that is actually the case,” added Megan Welsh Carroll, professor and director of the Project for Sanitation Justice. “I do know of research, however, that says if you provide more public restrooms, people will not practice open defecation nearly as much.”

Maylin Tu / LA Public Press

The residents who didn’t want bathrooms were the same people who complained about feces on the street, according to Bonin.

During his tenure, he worked to bring more access to bathrooms and showers in his district. One of his first efforts was to keep the Horizon bathrooms at Venice Beach open overnight — which required passing an amendment to the Los Angeles Municipal Code. That change went into effect in June 2018.

Currently, the Horizon bathrooms are still open 24-hours-a-day, according to Sonya Young-Jimenez, superintendent for Recs and Park at Venice Beach. The remaining 52 stalls at Venice Beach are open from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Bonin was also instrumental in bringing the Pit Stop program to LA as a pilot in 2018. He credits longtime activist David Busch-Lilly with bringing him the idea for both the Pit Stop program and Lava Mae mobile shower trailers in Venice Beach. 

Does removing bathrooms deter homelessness?

There are a number of departments managing different hygiene programs across the city, including LASAN, the Board of Public Works and the mayor’s office. When city staff encounter a portable toilet or hand washing station, they often don’t know who it belongs to, emails show.

Removing bathrooms and other public amenities like seating or trees is not new and peer-reviewed research does not show this addresses homelessness in any substantive way (Traci Park and her office did not respond to questions about how hygiene resources fit into the district’s overall homelessness strategy). The Pit Stop location at Venice and Globe was the last portable hygiene station in CD11 as of October 24. According to numbers from the Board of Public Works, the program was extremely popular. In September, the location had almost 4,000 visits over 24 days, or an average of 165 visits per day.

“This was like the only one for people,” said Ndindi Kitonga, an organizer with Palms Unhoused Mutual Aid (PUMA), noting that the bathrooms and sink were used by more than just the people who lived at the encampment. “So now they have to figure out — am I willing to talk to the McDonald’s manager or go into Starbucks? — and a lot of those interactions are very unpleasant, because unhoused people are stigmatized.”

Maylin Tu / LA Public Press

“None of the businesses really want to let you in to use the bathroom, because you’re homeless,” said Kalic Chambers, a resident of the Venice and Globe encampment. “So you have that against you. It’s just ridiculously tough to just use a bathroom, which is horrible.”

Chris Herring, professor of sociology at UCLA, calls removing toilets to make it harder for unhoused people to survive “hardening the environment” or “prevention through deterrence.”

Activists have long pointed out that aggressively removing visible encampments without providing adequate housing does not solve the problem of unsheltered homelessness — instead, unhoused residents are driven from one block to the the next.

He questions why LA would remove toilets from the street instead of moving them to another location to meet the ongoing need. From 2022 to 2023 the unsheltered unhoused population in the city of LA grew by 15% to reach 32,680 people, according to the annual LAHSA count.

City officials and residents who believe that bathrooms incentivize homelessness have blocked bathroom access for everyone, causing more human waste on city streets.

“In an ideal world, I’d like to depoliticize this issue and have some system of distribution that would place it more fully in the hands of some office in the Department of Public Health,” said Herring.

Without this kind of oversight, unhoused people risk losing access to basic hygiene like showers and restrooms at the whims of city officials.

“I am starting to hypothesize that public restroom deprivation is deliberate on the part of cities,” said Carroll. “And what I mean by that is, it is very easy to other, and label and stereotype a whole class of people if you deprive them of the basic resources that it takes for them to present as part of society.”

Since she was elected, Park has blocked housing for residents at the RV encampment at the Ballona Wetlands and opposed the Venice Dell housing project in Venice. 

In February, Park said that leading with offers of services and housing was a “moral obligation.”