Lane’s Loo Is Helping the Homeless in a Fire-Ravaged California Community

Portable restroom operators can make a difference providing necessary service for the growing population of people living in the streets or in their cars

Lane’s Loo Is Helping the Homeless in a Fire-Ravaged California Community

Bill Norton is shown with the restroom honoring his late wife, Lane Norton. (Photos courtesy of Sonoma Overnight Support)

It’s a sad reality, but for the past few years, I’ve started to see that serving the homeless, the transient populations and the working poor is going to be a growing niche market for portable restroom operators.

I have witnessed tent cities popping up in cities including New Orleans, Chicago and Milwaukee, and the number of people who populate them is astonishing. I have watched as the homeless shelters in my hometown have filled, leaving local and transient poor to fend for themselves.

Just last summer, we featured ordained minister and PRO Lance Olinski in an On Location story covering his effort to bring shower trailers to the homeless in several Texas locations. Through his organization, Streetside Showers, Olinski answered a call to provide these vital sanitary services, and he is currently training others to start similar operations in other parts of the country.

LIVING IN CARS

The traveling charity shower trailers were something new. Olinski recognized a great need for portable sanitation services, and he stepped up. Now there is a new homelessness trend emerging on the West Coast that requires the services — whether paid or donated — of our portable sanitation industry: safe parking lots.

Many homeless individuals and families are living in their cars on the streets of California — and in cities across the country. With overnight parking and loitering laws, they are forced to change locations frequently and are often left in dangerous situations and with no place to use a bathroom. In places like San Diego, San Francisco, Long Beach and Sacramento, civic leaders are experimenting with providing secured parking lots where the homeless stay in their cars and receive services like portable sanitation and counseling.

Safe parking lots may help homeless advocates consolidate needed services in controlled areas and slow the problem of public defecation and urination that’s so prevalent in big cities these days. And your portable restroom company could play a role — either by serving nonprofit or municipal customers or partnering with charity groups to help their cause.

One place where a safe parking lot program appears to be working is in Sonoma, California, an affluent wine country community that has a significant homeless population because of wildfires and limited affordable housing. Thanks in part to a generous $10,000 bequest, the Sonoma Overnight Support homeless shelter has started a safe parking lot program in addition to its existing winter shelter and day services.

The group has access to a large parking lot, and the city allows 10 cars of homeless people to stay there, a fraction of the estimated 30-plus Sonoma residents who live in their vehicles, according to Kathy King, the group’s executive director. To serve the homeless in their cars, as well as the overflow from the shelter, the group spends about $400 per month for a portable restroom that’s serviced three times a week.


THANK YOU LANE

The folks have Lane Norton to thank for the restroom. When the shelter volunteer passed away, she left $10,000 to the organization, which decided to spend it on a portable restroom. Bill Norton recently dedicated Lane’s Loo in honor of his late wife, and her donation will support the restroom placement for years, King says. 

“She was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in July. All of the sudden I got a check. She didn’t say anything to me. It surprised me. It was very sweet and very touching,” King says. “Think of how many people she’s helping. I’ve heard of people donating benches (to honor loved ones who passed away), but not port-a-potties. She had a wonderful sense of humor, and she would have loved this.”

King says some of the worst wildfires in California and massive power outages certainly contributed to the homeless crisis in Sonoma. The disasters burned many people out of their homes, and there just isn’t enough housing stock for them. And what is available is incredibly expensive. She says records show that 82% of the people seeking the shelter’s services were already residents of Sonoma, and half of them are retirement age.

“It breaks my heart to see a 70-year-old living in his car. What kind of world is this when half of the people living in cars are over 60? Nobody gets this,” King says. “One-fourth of them living in cars are working. We’ve been tracking [the problem], and it keeps ticking up and ticking up. I don’t see an end to it.”

NO VANDALISM

The Sonoma Overnight Support program includes a home where four to eight people can sleep and a winter shelter at a church fellowship hall that sleeps 12 to 18. The group provided 2,000 showers and 17,000 meals in 2019, and it offers laundry service, hygiene kits, health services and haircuts. 

Contrary to what some might expect, vandalism hasn’t been an issue with portable restrooms provided part time over four years and now full time through the donation. King says she thinks the users appreciate having a safe place to find relief and they take care of it because they don’t want it to go away.

“Knock on wood, we haven’t had any issues with the port-a-potties,” she says. “It gives people a sense of dignity, and it keeps the community safer and cleaner. This is a key thing for people to be able to wash their hands and keep clean. They don’t want to be dirty. It dehumanizes them.”

Whether the safe parking lots or other services related to homelessness could provide worthwhile revenue stream to PROs remains to be seen. According to King, San Francisco is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to attack a huge homeless and related sanitation problem. According to many recent news accounts, a number of other communities in California, Colorado and elsewhere are also starting to dedicate significant resources to the issue.

GETTING INVOLVED

PROs could take a pulse of their local leaders to see if the problem needs addressing. And if civic leaders express an interest, local PROs can make themselves available to offer advice on placement and maintenance of restroom units. After all, members of our industry are the experts in meeting portable sanitation needs, and it never hurts to make that known.

An option is to seek opportunities to donate your time, talents and restroom equipment to make things better in your community. You could consider partnering with a local church or shelter to offer reduced prices for your service or donate a couple units along your service route.

Whether as a paid service provider or as a donor, there are a few issues to take into consideration:


Vandalism

While King says their unit has been well cared for, it’s conceivable that units could be damaged in this type of setting. Of course, there is a risk of vandalism anytime you drop a unit off at a construction site. Assess the risk in any situation and either charge accordingly or accept that you may be donating time and materials at some point.

Getting between the customer and local government

Before dropping off a unit for a group serving the homeless, make sure the city or other local governmental body has approved the program and placement of the unit. A safe parking lot program, for instance, could be considered controversial with neighbors. Follow the rules and you could feel like you’re making a difference in the lives of disadvantaged people.

Perceived safety issues for technicians

One of your biggest daily concerns is getting your drivers home safely at the end of a shift. Assess the safety of the location of a safe parking lot or homeless encampment before sending your crew on a service call. Is the organization hiring you providing security? Is the area well lit and monitored by the police? Get assurances about the safety of the area, and consider sending two technicians instead of one.

Positive or negative publicity

Some in the community will appreciate you for providing necessary sanitary services to a population in desperate need. Others may not want to see your unit in an urban parking lot or see the homeless population congregating in a certain area of the city. If you understand and accept the uncertain reaction you’ll receive for serving the customer or donating your units, you may find great reward in lending a helping hand.

HOW DO YOU SERVE?

Is your restroom company involved in helping a charitable cause in your hometown? I’ve found PROs are very generous in doing good deeds in their communities, and we’d like to shed light on the many ways you can make positive contributions. Drop me a line at editor@promonthly.com, and let me know how you share you time, talents and equipment. I’ll highlight these efforts in a future column. 



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