A mobile hand-washing station in the Westlake-MacArthur Park area. | Lexis-Olivier Ray
The sanitation stations are supposed to help prevent the spread of coronavirus
On Maryland Street and Alvarado Boulevard, a hand-washing station tagged with graffiti has been without soap or water since March 24.
On Alvarado Boulevard and James M. Wood Boulevard, a hand-washing station littered with trash has been dry since March 25.
Several hundred hand-washing stations, which are recommended by public health officials as essential tools for preventing illness, have been distributed at homeless encampments across the city to help prevent COVID-19 from spreading to city’s unhoused population.
With the new coronavirus spreading across the region, the city has, in the short span of a few weeks, collaborated with the state, county, and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to roll out critical services that homeless advocates have demanded for years, including a promise from the mayor to open 6,000 emergency shelter beds at 42 rec centers citywide (as of Friday, 566 of those beds had opened).
They’ve installed 300 mobile hygiene stations and 120 mobile bathrooms, according to LAHSA director Heidi Marston. And more are on the way.
A federal judge has ordered the city and county to install 50 more toilets and 50 more sanitation stations in the Skid Row area. In court records, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who’s presiding over hearings in a civil lawsuit brought against the city and the county over their response to LA’s homeless crisis, says that he has personally observed “very few sanitation facilities available.”
“It appears that no new toilets or sanitation stations have been installed in this area since the advent of the COVID-19 health crisis,” the order says. “If left unchecked, it is likely that the coronavirus will both devastate the vulnerable homeless population and exacerbate the existing public health crisis more generally.”
But what good are hand-washing stations without soap or water?
Hand-washing is one of the best methods for stopping the disease, which could have devastating consequences if it hits homeless camps. Unhoused residents are more likely to have compromised immunity or reside in living situations that prevent recommended social distancing practices.
The first case of COVID-19 was reported in the city’s homeless community on Tuesday, involving a man in his 50s living and working at the Union Rescue Mission in Skid Row. Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, confirmed today that five people experiencing homelessness have tested positive for the virus.
In the MacArthur Park area of Westlake, Curbed has observed that multiple hand-washing stations and portable bathrooms are not being maintained. From Skid Row to Venice, housing advocates have documented a similar pattern.
“The city’s hand-washing stations, from the start, was all show, and no substance,’” says Pete White, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network.
White says the city started placing hundreds of stations without a plan to “restock, clean or refill them.” He also says the design of the hand-washing stations is “woefully inadequate for folks unable to operate the foot pump.”
Curbed checked on all of those hand-washing stations on Tuesday and found three were without water and, or soap. Four of the locations on the LASHA map didn’t exist or weren’t located where the map said they were.
Three of the stations that were stocked with water, soap, and paper towels were in locations that didn’t correlate to the LAHSA map. Those stations appear to be managed by Andy Gump, a family owned and operated business based in North Hollywood.
On Beacon Avenue, near James M. Wood Boulevard, Amanda and Cindy escaped the sun on a warm Tuesday afternoon, sitting together in a tiny tent. They’re both aware of the COVID-19 pandmeic but say they aren’t concerned that they will catch it.
Hand-washing stations—like the new station that was installed next to their tent (it’s one of the hand-washing stations that LAHSA incorrectly mapped)—are helpful, but that they need to be cleaned more regularly, they say. There’s also a need for bathrooms and showers. “We need showers, definitely,” says Cindy.
A couple blocks northwest on Bonnie Brae Street and 8th Street, David, age 63, sips water out of a coffee cup from 7-Eleven. He says he used to get cups of coffee from 7-Eleven for free in exchange for cleaning the counters, but now self-serve coffee is a thing of the past, and 7-Eleven has stopped allowing him to wipe down the counters.
He says he’s not concerned about catching coronavirus either. But he is however worried about his elderly mother in Delaware, because if he comes down with COVID-19, he can’t take care of her.
David says he doesn’t use the hand-washing stations. He can tell just by looking at most of them, he says, that they’re dried up or unsanitary. Ordinarily he would go to McDonalds to use the bathroom and clean up, but now that dining rooms are closed he can’t. Fortunately, he says, the Food 4 Less is still open.
David also mentions the bathrooms on Alvarado between Wilshire and Seventh, across from the MacArthur Park-Westlake Metro station. “They’re good bathrooms,” he says.
On the eastern edge of the park, Raul watches over a couple of portable toilets and hand-washing stations under the shade of a small tree. The aspiring musician and filmmaker works for Urban Alchemy, an organization that contracts with the city of Los Angeles to provide restrooms, bathrooms, mobile showers, and other services near homeless camps. “We don’t run out of water,” said Raul, as a line of people waited to use the bathroom.
The hand-washing stations and portable toilets that Urban Alchemy use are managed by the same company as many of the city’s hygiene stations, United Site Services.
Elena Stern, a spokesperson for the city’s Bureau of Public Works, says the Unified Homeless Response Center is in charge of the hand-washing stations and referred questions to the mayor’s office. But she said that during homeless camp clean-ups, the city’s sanitation department cleans the hand-washing stations and notifies the city’s homeless response center if they need to be repaired or refilled. The homeless response center then notifies vendors to fix or refill them.
The mayor’s office did not return multiple requests for more information.