People who sleep in Salem parks and doorways, under bridges and under shrubs, are excited by the chance that seven new porta-potties may be installed in downtown Salem.
Word of the first of the projected new facilities, trucked in with fanfare midday June 18 and placed in the parking lot of the First Congregational United Church of Christ (UCC) at Marion and Cottage, quickly spread to folks entering the Homeless Outreach and Advocacy Project (HOAP) on Church Street and to those all the way down in the ‘Skate Park,’ Marion Square Park near the Willamette River.
D.J. and Kael, friends who are well known to the UCC family, have volunteered to Senior Pastor Janet Parker and Assistant Pastor Emily Goodnow, to help monitor the new potty for health and safety concerns.
“This is so great,” D.J. says. “This is so needed; it’s something that happens to everybody. And not having anywhere to go was horrible, because we slept on this [the church] porch. The ‘up’ side now is that people don’t have to use owners’ properties. We will be here daily, cleaning up after ourselves and others.”
The church allows those without shelter to sleep on its property, and the first evening, Goodnow was there in person to greet those returning for the night. “The men I met in the parking lot were incredibly grateful for the potty,” she says, “and were very entertained by how excited we were to show it to them! They came right up to us to ask about it, and to say thank you… their thanks was genuine and heartfelt. We didn’t do it for the thanks of course – we did it because it’s needed, and we care – but it sure felt good to see their smiles and know we were providing a dignified, private facility for anyone who needs it.”
Snake, resting at the skate park, was encouraged by the news. “When you need to find a restroom and have no clue where to go, you have to be like a cat,” he says, “and it can be hard.”
“All of us that are homeless need facilities,” Charlotte says. Marion Square Park’s brick-and-mortar bathroom has been closed due to vandalism, and when the city porta-potty, installed in recent months, was locked for a day last week (not by the City,) she was upset and disappointed. “I had to walk all the way to the [Union Gospel] Mission, and they don’t let women inside after 6 in the evening.”
Seven out of eight people in Marion Square Park had heard about the UCC facility the day after its delivery. All thought it was a good idea.
Jugga called it “f-ing awesome” and Jay said, “it means I wouldn’t have to run so far.” Elden added, “I would like more bathrooms, of course. People don’t want to be hassled [for using public or private property for this need.]”
An open, acknowledged issue for everyone involved is the problem of vandalism and sanitation. A City Parks employee cleaning the (City owned-) Skate Park porta potty says the facility is “filthy and disgusting” every day. “I try to clean it so it’s a nice place. I wish the homeless would show some respect. For themselves and for other people.”
Charlotte agrees, saying the vandalism and waste in the Marion Square potty “messes it up for all the rest of us who are homeless. Come on, people,” she says, “We’re lucky to have it. I’m scared about it being closed like the big one was.”
Merissa, sitting in the shade in Marion Square Park, says she noticed the new UCC porta-potty the very first morning. “I was so grateful,” she says, “I think it’s wonderful. But it does take the homeless community to keep them clean.”
Merissa was delighted to learn about the idea, advanced by a group of women in the business, faith, arts and social support community, to place 7 potties on the 7 blocks of downtown Salem “Let’s get the pottie started,” Salem Weekly, June 11, 2015.
“It would be good to have one near HOAP, and areas that are frequently trafficked by people who don’t have another place to go,” Merissa added.
Back at the church, Goodnow and her group, enthusiastic about the placement of the first of their seven facilities, are renewed. They didn’t get an “art wrap” on the first potty because they didn’t want to wait another minute. But their hopes for the Kickstarter to raise funds and cooperation with City of Salem staff and downtown businesspeople – run high.
They have been assured by Mark Becktel, Interim Urban Development Director for the City of Salem, that City staff want to be part of finding a solution to the problem of transients needing bathroom facilities. They have also received guidance from the Salem Fire Department (potties must be placed a minimum of 5 feet from a combustible wall, doors, widows, overhangs, parking spaces open to vehicle parking, fire standpipes, and the edge of tree canopies.) Issues remain, and Becktel has told them the city is studying code as it moves toward solutions.
“Lots of days the work of trying to live the gospel and change the culture is slow and hard,” Rev. Goodnow says. “I’m hopeful about the future, and from the [homeless] men’s respect, gratitude, and reassurance, I have faith that this is a project that will succeed, and will grow in to the vision of Artapotties throughout Salem’s downtown.”
She quotes fellow Artapotty advocate, Verena Wessell, “In the Kingdom of God, everyone deserves a throne!”
NOTE on terminology: Advocates for those who have no shelter often refer to the people they serve as “houseless” or “unsheltered,” because they believe these terms convey respect. However, the people themselves consistently use the word, “homeless” and Salem Weekly has done so too.