As hand-washing becomes increasingly important amid the coronavirus outbreak, Denver City Council is considering a $3.5 million contract that would widen public access to portable bathrooms, each equipped with soap, water and a sink to scrub off germs.
Since the city launched its mobile public restroom project in March 2016, in part to address the city’s hepatitis A outbreak, it’s rolled out two trailer-based restrooms, which move across Denver roughly every three to six months. The goal is to provide the city’s most vulnerable populations, among others, with basic human needs, like a toilet and place to clean themselves.
The new contract with Liberty Waste Management would not only pay for maintaining and cleaning those mobile restrooms, along with a number of other portable toilets used by city agencies, the airport and for special events, but also allocate about $1 million toward a permanent restroom at Sonny Lawson Park in Five Points and a third portable unit that would rotate throughout the city.
“This has been a pretty important contract to support health department response and be able to facilitate hand-washing needs — not just with Hepatitis A — but as we look forward with coronavirus now,” Danica Lee, director of Denver Public Health and Environment’s inspection division, told Denver City Council’s Finance and Governance Committee on Tuesday. “We really want to make sure that people are washing hands right now more than ever, so we’re evaluating how we might be able to equip different city settings with those resources as well.”
City health officials say the contract, which would start in April and run for at least three years, could be used, in part, to address unmet needs in shelters where there’s no hand-washing near the food service line, for instance.
It could also be used for emergencies, including supporting overnight shelters should a plumbing problem arise.
The city’s two mobile bathrooms are currently located at Market at 21st and 21st and Stout and have moved around the Capitol Hill, Ball Park, East Colfax and downtown’s 16th Street Mall areas — but not to everyone’s liking.
Council members said they have received complaints from people concerned about the public bathrooms being an eyesore, possibly enabling more drug use and attracting unwelcome people to their neighborhoods and businesses.
Tami Door, the president and CEO of Denver Downtown Partnership, told Colorado Politics that the nonprofit business organization has been resistant to the idea based on concerns “about where and how they would be located and how they could be managed” ever since the mobile restroom project was first presented several years ago.
“We raised questions about where it would be located, how those decisions would be made, how frequently they would be moved around, what type of analysis would we use to evaluate their impact, effectiveness, challenges and opportunities,” Door said, adding that the group also felt apprehensive around funding and security issues as well.
However, she said, Denver Downtown Partnership "understands the importance of public restrooms for the health, well-being and convenience of our employees, visitors and residents to our community."
Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech, who headed the initiative in 2016, said that the restrooms, instead of staying in one place, are rotated around Denver to manage neighbor complaints, although she doesn’t agree that’s the best option, because it prevents people from consistently knowing where the restrooms are.
She also said that bathrooms are actively monitored by attendants, often hired through the Denver Day Works program, which provides paid work opportunities for adults experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
City officials said there is a desire to move the Ballpark unit to 24-hour operation. It, along with the other trailer on Market and 21st, currently operates from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. with extended hours on weekends.
Although city officials say some restaurant owners on the 16th Street Mall oppose the installation of a mobile bathroom near their establishment, Denver's health department recently found that most also won’t allow people to use their restroom for free.
“Just last month we surveyed businesses on the 16th Street Mall to see if they’d be willing to let people not making a purchase use the restroom, and if they’d be willing to let that be publicly listed” Lee said. “Five businesses said that they would,” but when DDPHE went to get that information in writing per guidance from the City Attorney's Office, “only one of the businesses followed through with that.”
According to city data, Denver’s mobile restrooms average more than 250 daily uses. Of more than 46,200 people surveyed, 37% said they use the portable restrooms because they work nearby. Another 31% said they use the restroom because they are homeless.
About 99% of the more than 46,000 people surveyed said that the condition of the restroom was “excellent.”
The contract was advanced on Tuesday to the full council and will be heard later this month.
Denver City Councilman Paul Kashmann said he backs the proposal.
"It's such a basic element of human dignity that I would support whatever expansion we can make happen, for sure," he said.