After three years, and with a fleet of 4 at its height, Salem’s art-themed portable toilets for access by homeless people is now no more. One pottie will remain in a church parking lot, the site where the project began.
The departure shows that the community has failed many of its residents, says Stephen Goins, Transitional Housing Director of Northwest Human Services’ Homeless Outreach and Advocacy Project (HOAP) in Salem.
“The City should have studied this more and worked on problem solving,” Goins says. “It’s a shame that people didn’t look at statistics before they pulled the plug.”
Created by four local women, the “Arta-Pottie” program addressed a long-standing dearth of sanitary facilities in Salem and removed a total of 5,000 gallons of human waste from the streets. It provided basic dignity for the homeless population and helped avert hepatitis outbreaks. The potties were decorated with professional, laminated artwork and project supporters paid for the units and their regular cleaning.
What broke the effort, advocates say, was that the City of Salem wouldn’t provide locations to place the facilities. The Arta-Pottie vision “was always designed for City property, with us providing, placing and maintaining the potties,” says project founder, Rebecca Maitland-Courtney. “The City of Salem wouldn’t give us public properties to place the potties on, and we couldn’t find enough private property.”
“Meanwhile,” she says, “the need tripled.”
1,600 individuals are confirmed to be chronically without housing in Salem, according to Goins. His agency serves an average of 500 unique individuals each month, a figure that is up from last year. He sees more youth than before and says, “We also have a growing population of women. It is very concerning because of how susceptible they are to victimization.”
These hundreds of individuals, Maitland-Courtney says, represent “oceans of humanity with so many people coming over the bridges” from West Salem and other camps.
Now, there is only one public pottie – and its located 7 blocks from the river.
“I think it’s unfortunate,” Goins says, “because people have a basic need. It’s not more complex than that. Opponents may have cited concerns about drug use [in the potties] as something to object to them about, but there has never been a correlation shown between drug use and Arta Potties. It’s an uninformed statement to use as a concern.”
Salem Homeless Newsletter, written by a houseless individual, announced the potties’ departure in its April 2018 edition, saying, “We hate to see the Arta Potties program go from Salem. It was a much needed service.”
Goins believes the issue is one of “dignity and humanity. It’s shameful to have to use the bathroom shamefully,” he says. “These people hate it.”
However, as any chance for City of Salem support for the toilets was fading, Oregon City’s interest was growing. “Oregon City didn’t have the political blockades” that Salem did, Maitland-Courtney observes.
It started when Oregon City’s Chief of Police heard about the potties and got excited. He contacted Maitland-Courtney and discussed the possibility of facilitating potties in his own community. As a result, Maitland-Courtney was invited to visit Oregon City; she and the Chief drove around town and quickly sited several potential spots.
Maitland-Courtney then commissioned two Arta potties for Oregon City – including the state’s first ADA accessible unit. After that, she recalls, “there were two more visits, and a party by the houseless, merchants, restaurateurs, the police and city officials – and it was done.”
The program has been a great success. Six months after placement and Maitland-Courtney says, “it’s worked perfectly.”
Oregon City’s Public Outreach Officer, Mike Day has been instrumental in assuring the program continues to address public health needs. “Given the positive implementation of the Arta-Potties in Oregon City,” Day says, “talks began regarding the need to expand our program. The expansion process was made easy when Arta-Potties founder, Rebecca Maitland-Courtney, told me she was willing to donate four Arta-Potties to our fleet.”
With this donation, Day says, Oregon City “will be able to provide even greater access to restrooms 24-hours a day to those in our community who otherwise don’t have access.”
One pottie will remain in Salem at its original location, the First Congregational United Church of Christ. Donations gathered to support the local project will continue to provide sponsorship for this pottie with project partner, Ace Chemical Toilets.
“It’s the tale of two cities,” says Maitland-Courtney. “Oregon City is succeeding with the program due to police and city involvement. They simply do not place the burden of public health solutions solely on the public. Working in collaboration is the only way to succeed.”