In 2020, the City of Los Angeles rapidly deployed hundreds of portable toilets and handwashing stations at homeless encampments across the city in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — an unprecedented effort by LA to meet the hygiene needs of unhoused residents. 

However, for most of 2023, the number of units on the street decreased. The issue? The Department of General Services (GSD) that manages the contract stopped paying invoices for the program — despite the nearly half a million dollars in its coffers for that purpose — and said it could no longer create new purchase orders.

Despite millions in allocated funding for the 2023 to 2024 fiscal year, the city has struggled to implement basic street-level services for unhoused constituents, including shade, water, toilets and handwashing stations, due to bureaucratic dysfunction. After months of uncertainty, the funding signaled that the city is committed to continuing the Portable Hygiene program, but mismanagement and a lack of oversight by LA Mayor Karen Bass’ homelessness team cast doubt on whether services will reach the people who need them.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a question about why the program operated at a diminished capacity for most of 2023.

LA Public Press requested an interview with the Unified Homelessness Response Center, the group within the mayor’s office that manages the program. In response, spokesperson Gabby Maarse asked for specific questions. LA Public Press sent a detailed list of questions but received no response.

I would prefer not to (manage this program)

Since last year, the program has been funded through Homeless Housing, Assistance and Prevention (HHAP) grant money from the state. In May, LA City Council approved over $1.8 million to fund the program through June 2024.

In March, the Department of General Services informed the mayor’s office that it could no longer manage the program and asked for it to be transferred to a different department. The mayor’s office sent a memo to the City Administrative Officer, LA’s de-facto city manager, asking for guidance. Meanwhile, the Portable Hygiene program remained in limbo with multiple unpaid invoices and no department with the procurement authority to order new toilets and handwashing stations. 

By July, the total number of toilets had dwindled to 33 or only 60% of full deployment despite the $1.8 million in funding approved by the city and a 15% increase in unsheltered homelessness.

According to emails LA Public Press obtained through a public records request, issues with adding new units began in May and were not resolved until September, when contract administration of the program was transferred from GSD to the Board of Public Works.

This delay meant that unhoused residents waited months instead of days for access to a bathroom.

GSD informed the mayor’s office that it could no longer provide contract administration for the program because the city’s COVID-19 emergency had ended. While the Unified Homelessness Response Center oversees the program, fielding requests from council offices and other departments, GSD handled procurement, processed invoices and managed the contract with United Site Services.

Emails show that Brian Swanson of GSD followed up with the mayor’s office about the transfer multiple times from late March to early June, attaching unpaid invoices received in March.

“I would suggest that these invoices (especially the December – February ones) be processed this month to avoid any potential service cut offs due to past-due invoices,” he wrote.

Mercedes Márquez, then chief of housing and homelessness solutions for Mayor Bass, sent a memo to the City Administrative Officer (CAO) on May 15 asking for guidance on the transfer. The CAO determines how HHAP funds are allocated and requests for more funding to expand a program must go through that office.

“Now that the COVID state of emergency has ended, it is GSD’s position that they no longer have the ability to create EPOs [Emergency Purchase Orders] and feel that the program should be moved to another city department,” wrote Marquez.

Instead of waiting for the program to be transitioned to a new department, GSD stopped paying the invoices that it had received, despite being fully funded for the amount needed. By early June, it had six unpaid invoices from the contractor. 

Receiving no response about the transfer from the CAO, Marquez’s staff sent a series of increasingly urgent emails.  

“Apologies, I received notification that the delay in the transition of invoicing for the hygiene units has now impacted the delivery of service,” wrote Joyce Dominguez, executive officer for Marquez. “The UHRC [the Unified Homelessness Response Center] Director, Lakesha Williams just informed me that GSD no longer has the ability to authorize purchasing orders and United Service has a new policy that the purchasing order needs to be created before we request a new unit. As of today, we have a unit that cannot be delivered due to the policy.”

In response to escalation from the mayor’s office, assistant city administrative officer Edwin Gipson sent screenshots of GSD’s accounts showing $444,620 in available funds.

“I believe the UHRC manages a component, but I am unclear on why the invoices have not been processed by GSD,” he wrote. “GSD has the funds already in their account to pay on its contracts.”

Not only had the CAO funded GSD to pay Portable Hygiene invoices for until the end of June, the $1.8 million in new funding also went to GSD.

“I am sure this is tied to the recent request by GSD to not manage the Mobile Hygiene program memo we received from the Mayor’s Office (attached) in May,” wrote Gipson to CAO Matthew Szabo.

Moving the funds from GSD to a new department required an amendment to the original HHAP report from the CAO, further stalling the process of transferring the program to a new department.

More money, fewer bathrooms

According to Tony M. Royster, general manager of GSD, the outstanding invoices did not effect service. However, the department’s position that it could not create new purchase orders did. The botched transfer of the program from GSD to a yet unknown department meant council districts who requested a new hygiene station would have to wait.

In early July, staff from councilmember Eunisses Hernandez requested new hygiene units at four locations

Later that month, staff from councilmember Hugo Soto-Martínez’s homelessness team requested two new portable toilets in Council District 13.

“Yes, we definitely have extra units, but there may be some delays in getting them deployed, we’re still working through issues with GSD (hopefully will be resolved soon),” wrote Megan Weiss, UHRC area coordinator. 

Those new units would not be deployed till September. By that point, there was a backlog of at least 13 hygiene stations across four districts. 

Meanwhile, in Councilmember Traci Park’s district, toilets were promptly removed at the request of her staff, causing the number of total units on the street to dwindle. With each council district separately managing hygiene services for unhoused people, there is no unified vision for the city of LA. While one council district can add services, another can take them away.

“Unsanitary conditions lead to the spread of disease in the unhoused community, and when you talk about going to the bathroom, or washing yourself — you are talking about basic human necessities,” said Patrick Mooney, homelessness director for Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martínez, in an email. “We need to make sure that people’s basic needs are met, and by doing that we can also help them get back on their feet and into a more stable situation.”

Problems with the Portable Hygiene program are not new. As chronicled by reporter Lexis-Olivier Ray in a multi-part investigative series for LA TACO, contractors received millions of dollars in city funds as handwashing stations went dry and toilets went unserviced. 

In June, LA Public Press inquired about the status of the Portable Hygiene program after LA TACO reported that funding was set to run out. According to internal emails, after reporter Lexis-Olivier Ray inquired about the funding in April, the CAO recommended $1.8 million in funding in its May HHAP report. However, the funding did not immediately translate into more units on the street, despite the program’s goal of reaching 55 total units.

“GSD has informed our staff that they feel that they can’t oversee the program anymore,” wrote Dominguez to the CAO’s office in early June.

“We have received questions from the press about the program, and we would like to ensure that there are no issues.” 

Maylin Tu is a freelance writer covering transportation, mobility and equity in Los Angeles.