Salinas Homeless Enthusiastic Over Incoming Portable Toilet; Pledge to Maintain and Keep Drug Free
January 11, 2013
Under yesterday’s waning afternoon light, a man bundled in a camouflage jacket and bright blue sweatshirt walked purposefully through a derelict Salinas street.
“Come sign up for the bathroom!’ he called to a group of similarly bundled, scruffy figures huddled in front of one of the brick buildings on Chinatown’s Soledad Street. The man, Thomas Leeakashistokes, continued on his mission, echoing his request as he moved past heaps of trash, clusters of tents and old shopping carts. Then he turned back, heading to a meeting room full of homeless people. They were there to sign up for the bathroom.
Yesterday Salinas Chinatown PHLUSH, a group of homeless men and women partnering with advocates from CSU Monterey Bay, publicly unveiled their plans to bring a portable toilet to Soledad Street, a gathering point for many of the city’s homeless. (PHLUSH stands for Personal Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human.)
Finding a restroom has long been a challenge for the residents of Soledad Street. When nearby service organizations—like the soup kitchen Dorothy’s Place— shut down in the afternoon and businesses turn away people or close for the night, there are few places to turn.
So Salinas Chinatown PHLUSH, loosely modeled after the larger-scale PHLUSH operation in Portland, came up with a solution: Bring a portable toilet to Chinatown and let the homeless be responsible for it.
In the past, portable toilets in the area turned into sex and drug dens. But Seth Pollack, director of CSUMB’s service learning program, believes giving the homeless community ownership of this project will yield different results.
If the enthusiasm of the 30-or-so participants at yesterday’s meeting, held at Soledad Street’s CSUMB Communty Learning Center, is any indicator, the experiment may work.
The meeting was meant to introduce the plan to the Soledad Street community, as well as recruit participants into PHLUSH. Only people who have signed the rules—like not using the restroom as a shooting gallery—have access to it. They must also show their bright blue PHLUSH card, proof that they’ve agreed to the terms. The toilet will arrive Monday, advocates said.
The gathering was also a rally of sorts. Emotions ran high in the group, which viewed the coming of the portable toilet as a long awaited, but yet-fragile, victory.
“Let’s do this,” said Leeakashistokes, addressing the crowd before the meeting began. “Let’s show everybody that we’re normal human beings.”
The meeting began with stories about being stuck without access to a restroom.
One man talked about a time he had urinated in public without realizing a police officer was nearby.
He worried he might have been charged with some larger offense.
“You’ll be put in the same place the sex offenders do,” he said. “You don’t want to be labeled that just because you had to go pee.”
Later, Pollack explained the larger significance of the PHLUSH endeavor.
"We have the capacity to organize, to be responsible and to improve our own lives,” he said. “They’re not going to do it for us. It’s up to us to show them that were really capable.”
If this effort succeeds, there may be bigger prizes to come, he said.
But for the experiment to work, Pollack stressed, the rules must be followed.
“We can’t have one incident of syringe or something, or else we’ll lose it,” said Rita Acosta, who lives in a tent on Soledad Street, and is a leader of the Salinas Chinatown PHLUSH effort.
“That’s not what it’s for,” piped up a cragged-faced man sitting in the back of the room.
Overseeing the effort on the ground is a “management team,” a group of homeless volunteers who pledged to keep watch over the restroom and maintain it.
Management team member Tasha Boyett, who had a tangle of strawberry blonde hair pulled tightly over her arcing forehead, helped CSUMB collect data for a survey assessing the need for a toilet in the area.
“I’m stoked,” she said. “This shows we actually do care about the Chinatown community.”
Boyett, an intravenous heroin user, said she is determined make the PHLUSH effort succeed. Drug users have always had other places to shoot up—this portable toilet will not become one of them, she hoped.
“We’ve been working really hard to get this,” she said. “Even though we have our faults and everything, we still deserve to have our dignity.”