Mobile Restrooms Offer Solution for Lower Polk’s Homeless Community

Portable toilets mounted to a trailer bed are moved throughout the Lower Polk neighborhood each night. (Brittany Hosea-Small/KQED)

Two portable bathrooms stand surrounded by flower pots and a white picket fence in one of the dirty and run-down alleys in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood. A large van decorated with LED lights is parked nearby, stocked with clothes, home-cooked food  and hot coffee.

This is the mobile City Resource Relief Center. Seven days a week it moves through the side streets in the Lower Polk section of the Tenderloin, assisting the homeless that live here, often because it's close to services. Starting last week, the center evolved from being just a nocturnal operation to one that provides 24/7 access to a clean and safe public restroom -- a basic need that has been hard to satisfy in this neighborhood.

“The Lower Polk Community Benefit District was looking for a way to be proactive about cleaning up the alleys from human waste,” says Christian Martin, the district’s executive director, who agreed to partly fund the project. “We decided to deploy this pilot program, and since its launch there has been a documented 40-50 uses of the bathrooms each night, creating a dramatic reduction of human waste in the area.”

Ashley Blair Thomas, serves the night’s dinner to the local homeless that come to the relief center.
Ashley Blair Thomas serves the night’s dinner to  local homeless people who come to the relief center. (Brittany Hosea-Small/KQED)

The idea for the mobile center came from local residents David Hato and Ashley Blair Thomas, who both have experience with homeless outreach. They approached Martin with their plan to find a different way to tackle one aspect of the homeless problem in the city, and are funding the majority of the project out of their own pockets. 

“I am trying to promote human dignity by ensuring human decency," says Hato. "It is amazing how thankful these people are just to have a clean place to go the bathroom."

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Hato and Thomas launched the center on June 15, and it’s already being well received.

David Hato (right) takes his Relief Center mobile and drives through the streets of the Tenderloin district.
David Hato (right) takes his van through the streets of the Lower Polk neighborhood. (Brittany Hosea-Small/KQED)

Tristan Greystone lives in the Next Door Shelter on the corner of Cedar Alley and Polk Street, but says he spends evenings in the alley because he doesn't feel safe in the shelter at night. He says he's thankful for the services of Hato and Thomas. "It’s like a little safe haven for even five minutes. David is so welcoming and friendly,” says Greystone. “I’ve lived in San Francisco for 25 years now. It is my home.”

Tristan Greystone frequents the City Resource’s Relief Center and applauds Hato’s new initiative.
Tristan Greystone frequents the City Resource Relief Center and applauds Hato’s and Thomas' new initiative. (Brittany Hosea-Small/KQED)

Besides providing an accessible bathroom, the center offers hygiene kits, a safe place to dispose of used needles and access to donated clothes. Thomas, who used to be an emergency medical technician and is now a student at San Francisco State, offers foot care and blood pressure checks.  

Hato and Thomas begin each shift around 6 p.m.  and they park the van -- and the bathrooms it tows -- in an alley for an hour, serving hot food, usually cooked by Thomas. Then they pack up  and begin driving through all the alleys in the Lower Polk, stopping and checking in on anyone they think needs assistance.

“The reason mobility is so amazing is because so many people won't go into a shelter, so we bring the services to them,” says Hato.

David Hato (right) retrieves equipment including hygiene kits and spare clothes that are given out to those that visit the relief center through out the night. David Hato (right) retrieves equipment including hygiene kits and spare clothes that are given out to those that visit the relief center through out the night.
David Hato (right) prepares to hand out hygiene kits and spare clothes to people that visit the relief center during the night. (Brittany Hosea-Small/KQED)

Hato and Thomas are quickly expanding their services, with a plan to provide showers and lease a solar-powered trailer to provide more health care services. Local community members are also pitching in to volunteer their time, and Hato hopes to expand their team as the program continues.

“I think we might have a shot at setting a new standard throughout the entire city and maybe one day beyond,” says Hato, before he slides the door open to his van and hands a man a clean shirt.

He paid $42,000 for the van and $5,000 for the bathrooms, and he and Thomas provided several thousand more dollars for additional equipment. The rest of the money for the program comes from donations. The Lower Polk Community Benefit District pays Hato $7,200 a month.

San Francisco Public Works offers a similar bathroom solution, the Pit Stop program. It began in July 2014 and operates at 11 locations throughout the city, including the Tenderloin, Castro and Mission. All the Pit Stop facilities are staffed by paid attendants who help ensure that the toilets are well maintained and used for their intended purpose. However, the bathrooms are only accessible during the daytime.