Los Angeles Opens New Hygiene Center on Skid Row; Local Activists Not Impressed

Mayor Eric Garcetti and an assortment of city councilmen rolled out the proverbial red carpet for themselves on Monday in Skid Row, for the new opening of a brand-new "hygiene center." The curiously named "ReFresh Spot" (what is this, a new juice stand?) contains six showers and eight toilets, the first time in a decade that the city has added new public restrooms to Skid Row.

“Homelessness is a crisis of housing and public health," said the mayor in a statement, "and the ReFresh Spot shows that when the community and city work together, we can help the most vulnerable Angelenos meet their most basic human needs.”

But not everyone was so pleased with the grand opening. As part of the festivities, the mayor handed a certificate of commendation (which local elected officials hand out like candy on Halloween to any dry cleaner or volunteer they cross paths with) to a local activist with the Los Angeles Community Action Network (or L.A. CAN) known as General Dogon.

"You know what?" said Dogon as he commandeered the microphone. "This award is just like the mayor and his cronies." At that, Dogon began to rip the commendation to shreds. "It’s worthless. Because ... the toilets that you bringing, it’s 10 years late and it’s 300 too short!"

The mayor cringed. A few people in the audience cheered. Dogon continued: "For the last 16 years, you been in leadership of City Council, you have directly criminalized Skid Row. And I cannot accept this. This ain’t nothing compared to what we been going through and what we need."

"I agree," said the mayor, smiling uncomfortably.

In the past, public toilets on Skid Row have been used for criminal purposes — drug use and prostitution — according to law enforcement officials. Which is why the new $450,000 facility will come with a maintenance and security crew. Officials hope to expand the center next year, adding more toilets and showers as well as a laundry machines.

According to the most recent homeless count in 2017, there are 34,189 people living in the city of Los Angeles without a home — an increase of 20 percent compared with 2016. While large, makeshift encampments made of tents and shopping carts have become a common sight on the streets of L.A., nowhere is the problem worse than in the 50-some-odd–square-block neighborhood of Skid Row, the largest concentration of homelessness in the country, where as many as 1,800 people live on the streets and in temporary shelters.

Though the mayor and City Council helped campaign for a pair of ballot measures, HHH and H, that raised taxes to fund the construction of low-income and supportive housing, as well as mental health services for the homeless, the city's leaders have been criticized for failing to treat the crisis as an emergency. Housing construction takes time; thousands of people sleeping on the same streets that other people are using as open-air toilets is, one might say, a major public health crisis.

No one knows this more than Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row, who lost his leg after contracting E. coli, strep and staph bacterias from walking around the neighborhood. Bales agrees that the toilets should have come sooner.

"I lost my leg because of a flesh-eating disease that was directly from people using the sidewalks as a restroom," Bales says. "It should have come probably a century ago. But it’s never too late to do the right thing – or begin to do the right thing. It's a step in the right direction."

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