A diverse group of women have an inspired solution to the problem of public defecation in the downtown Salem core. Their goal is to involve the community in a positive way and provide portable toilets, “arta potties,” decorated with unique Salem-inspired art, in the seven blocks of downtown.
They believe this approach, unique to the US, could serve as an inspiration to cities across the country that are facing the same problem, and make Salem a leader in successfully addressing it.
“This is a man-made crisis,” says Rebecca Courtney, curator at downtown’s Roger Yost Gallery and Vice President of QA Properties. “It is happening all across America, but we think that we in Salem have a fighting chance – unlike LA or San Francisco – because we have just seven blocks to take care of.”
Courtney, the engine that first fired the effort, began the journey several months ago when she noticed a rise in human feces in the nooks and crannies of downtown Salem. She has lived here 11 years and found the increase – due to larger numbers of people without homes having no facilities – a biohazard, an environmental hazard and bad for business.
“We never had a problem of this significance before,” she says.
Believing the problem to be a humanitarian issue, Courtney met with other downtown businesspeople, social services providers and members of the faith community. She learned the factors that lead to the population increase included returning veterans, the recession, not enough higher paying wages; “the recovery has not trickled down to the people who have lost it all,” she says.
Verena Wessel, Community Relations Manager for Northwest Human Services and a member of the group, says many Salem homeless are in “emotional distress, because since 2009, a number of health care agencies that served these people have had to close. Our State facility has lost beds and closed outlying centers… so these are people who can be chronically mentally ill with few coping skills.”
Courtney also believes that recent ‘sweeps’ in Minto-Brown Park and West Salem contribute, because they send folks who have found communities in encampments to the west over the bridge into the downtown core. During these sweeps, law enforcement asks encampment residents to leave – and leave all their belongings as well.
“If you are running 6 – 7 blocks in distress with none of your few belongings, needing a bathroom is a natural and human thing,” Courtney says. “Of course people have needs, including to lie down, to go to the bathroom and get a drink of water.”
The arta pottie group includes Courtney and Wessel and Pamela Watson, a Special Education teacher and member of the Homeless Coalition, as well as Janet Parker, Senior Pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ and Emily Goodnow, Assistant Pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ.
Their concept is to place the facilities in seven well-lit spots in the seven blocks of downtown, each one leading the way to, or near to, services like Homeless Outreach Advocacy Program, an organization on Church Street that offers services for mentally ill adults experiencing chronic homelessness. Other agencies the arta-potties would support include the Congregational Church, the Emerging Housing Network, Shangri La, the Salvation Army and the United Gospel Mission.
Working hand-in-hand with the arta pottie toilets would be friendly, artistic “no trespassing” signs, to steer those with this essential human need away from the alleys and other crannies they now naturally seek for privacy.
“This ultimately will be a collaborative effort for Salem’s faith, business, non-profit, local government and art communities,” Wessel says. “The idea is to enhance the health and welfare of the city overall.”
The group has investigated the ‘brass tacks’ of their proposal; they’ve located a respected local portable toilet source, Salem’s Ace Chemical, for both potties and cleaning. and indentified a local “wrap” artist, Adam Navarro of Clean Slate Proof, a man committed to beautifying urban areas is set to install wraps that are graffiti-proof for two years, paid for by community fundraising events and a Kickstarter campaign.
They’ve been in touch with the Salem Historical Landmark Commission and learned about the ordinances, licensures and clauses that require even private property downtown construction to be “historically contributing.”
Importantly, they have located private property owners willing to house and support the potties on their own property, and pay for the monthly service fee, a sum that has been greatly reduced by Ace for public monthly sponsors . Sponsor’s names will be laminated on the Arta Potties as long as they support the project.
The group is now hoping for city collaboration and city locations as well. Though the City of Salem did not respond to requests to meet with them for several months and is financially strapped, Courtney says it is now “cautious in its support.” The arta pottie group takes heart from Mayor Anna Peterson’s personal interest in solving the problem, an issue she learned about when speaking with people in a warming shelter and which she highlighted in her 2014 State of the City address.
Steady progress is being made. On June 8, Mark Becktel of Salem’s Parks and Transportation Department let Courtney know he would meet with the Building & Safety and Fire Departments to explore the matter further, and two Oregon representatives are enthusiastic on having one at the Capitol.
Many issues still remain, including diverse liabilities, the problem of who will clean areas currently cared for by downtown property owners, and more.
“There will be challenges,” Wessel says, “but this is a crisis that has to be addressed.”
“No one wants to talk about porta-potties,” Courtney says, with a smile, “but when it’s an arta pottie, you get the party started!”
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