Giant Toilet Inspires Conversations about Homeless Sanitation in SF

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When a giant toilet sculpture made of clear plastic sheeting and PVC piping appeared in San Francisco's Hayes Valley neighborhood on a recent Saturday morning, it inspired passersby to have conversations about a topic that most of us never think about: what it’s like to be homeless and have no access to a bathroom.

“I think the perception is that people are defecating and urinating in the streets because they want to, because they are lazy," says Doniece Sandoval, founder of Lava Mae, a non-profit which turns old buses into mobile bathrooms and showers to serve the estimated 7,500 people living on the streets in San Francisco. "But the truth is that they don’t have access to safe, reliable sanitation."

Sandoval is a former marketing executive. To mark the United Nations' World Toilet Day (Nov. 19) she reached out to Oakland artist Robin Lasser with the idea of building a giant toilet. Lasser is known for creating temporary public sculptures -- "dress tents" -- that tackle social issues, and loved the idea. The artist quickly recruited her neighbor Sean Collins, a plumber, to build the toilet frame with PVC piping, and collaborator Rachel Richardson, a fashion designer, to design the plastic seat and clear vinyl shell.

“There is a little humor in this giant 14-foot toilet,” Lasser says. “But standing inside what feels like a giant toilet bowl, you hear the very poignant stories of Lava Mae clients who share about what it is like to live on the streets, to never have privacy. It’s almost like you are in a fishbowl.”