In today's Bay Area, $150,000 can get you a house in East Oakland, or a public toilet in the Tenderloin. Such a princely sum for a throne fits the TL, a neighborhood where the numbers are impressive: the highest concentration of children in San Francisco; the most services geared toward people living on society's fringes; the most shit. The Department of Public Works responded to 2,500 calls to clean up human waste on TL streets in 2011, according to spokeswoman Gloria Chan — about seven calls a day — but the situation is much worse than that, according to street-cleaning nonprofit Clean City, which says it wiped up human waste from TL streets 10,000 times in 2010.
It's no secret why. After the free meals provided by Glide Memorial Church, St. Anthony's, and others are consumed, the TL has two public toilets to service charity's "back end": one in a back room at the Rescue Mission on Turk Street, and one of the city's 25 JC Decaux toilets near the Tenderloin police station at Turk and Eddy. The rest of the neighborhood is a toilet desert.
"We're not giving them alternatives to using the streets as a bathroom," said Dina Hilliard, executive director of the North of Market/Tenderloin Community Benefit District, which has been since last year working with Oakland designer Brent Bucknum of Hyphae Design Labs to create a public john perfect for the Tenderloin.
The Decauxs are unpopular because their vault-like design allows for too much non-restroom-related mischief. But the city likes them because they're free: Decaux built, installed, and maintains them in exchange for the advertising space and a nominal fee. Bucknum thinks he can get a good-looking toilet with just enough privacy swapped for safety — think translucent plastic walls, along with possible green "living roofs," outdoor sinks, and amenities like trellises — built for $150,000, half the cost of a $300,000 Decaux.
The problem is maintenance. The Rescue Mission toilet has been a success in its nine months because the CBD pays a monitor $1,200 a month. As Hyphae and the CBD work to create a new toilet, they're also looking for the $60,000 or so required annually to pay someone to police it. So far, the city is uninterested in making that investment, but would be "happy if the CBD paid for it," Hilliard said.
In Portland, Ore., twice-daily cleaning of public loos is a $40,000-$50,000 line item in the city budget, Bucknum said. In New York's Bryant Park, area businesses pay to keep a public john clean.
Hilliard and Bucknum are looking for grants, sponsorship and other support. Funneling taxpayer money into the problem could be cheaper than the current alternative. DPW did not provide an estimate, but Bucknum offered a formula based on the existing cleanup model: 10,000 "incidents" on the streets per year, at half an hour to clean up for each, at $40 an hour wages, equals well over $200,000 San Francisco taxpayers currently spend on one of humanity's most basic functions. Might as well wipe with $100 bills.