Many Southern Humboldt residents have been talking shit this last week. SoHum has been arguing about the Porta -Potty recently placed in a small park at the north end of town. Debra Carey, a local woman concerned about both the homeless and hygiene rented it and had it placed in the Veterans’ Park last Thursday. While the rental company was still positioning it, local law enforcement arrived asking that it be removed. Words grew heated between the officers and homeless advocates.  The porta potty stayed but it’s tenure is uncertain.  In fact, Clif Clendenen–the district’s supervisor–said on yesterday’s Monday Morning Magazine that as it is un-permitted, it will have to be removed.

The community is divided.  The basic arguments against the porta potty are that it it will draw more homeless to the area which will cause further problems for locals and business owners and the building itself will soon be a disgusting mess. Those for it remaining claim that tourists as well as homeless need a public restroom.  The room will allow for more, not less hygiene in the homeless men and women and in the park itself. The division highlights two different ways of dealing with our society’s homeless.

“For ye have the poor always with you.”  That biblical verse seems more true in the last few years than ever. Whole communities of homeless folk hide on the edges of our towns. Liquor stores and gas stations seem to attract down-on-their-luck folk with cardboard signs asking for handouts.  As a community and as a nation we struggle with how to respond.  If we help them, many feel we risk being overrun and overwhelmed so they want to minimize services.  Others want to offer a hand, hoping to break the cycle or at least reduce someone’s misery temporarily. Humboldt, like the nation, is divided.

In Eureka, Betty Chin recently received national recognition for her showers and meals for the homeless. Meanwhile, Garberville with its tradition of rural independence is struggling to cope with increasing numbers of homeless–do we insist they pull themselves up or do we attempt to help them and maybe get saddled with helping them for life and get treated badly for our pains?

The small park at the north end of Garberville has become a battleground between these two ends of the spectrum with residents pulled between their hearts and their practical response.  In the small laundry across the road, the attendant, Rebecca, tells of keeping quarters and soap to help “traveling folk” who don’t have money wash their clothes and, at the same time, of chasing out homeless people drying muddy clothes in the dryers.  Customers, she says, are frustrated and want their money refunded when they put their clean clothes in the machines only to have them get covered with mud by people attempting to dry rain soaked garments without having to spend money to wash them first.

She says the homeless folk call her the Laundry Nazi because she chases them out when they do that or when they charge their cell phones on the laundromats electrical outlets and because she complains and shoos them off when they stand close to the building smoking pot which she is allergic to.  She laughs and pretends to shrug off the name but she’s obviously hurt and doesn’t understand how she has become a bad guy for protecting the business she works for.

In fact, local businesses often bear the brunt of providing (willingly or not) services for the homeless.  They provide overhangs in front of their businesses that become shelters in the rain, they provide trash receptacles which they must empty, they clean up messes and find their hoses and their electrical outlets tapped at their expense for water and power needs of the homeless. Of course, businesses are constantly being asked to allow people to use their restrooms.  And, unlike many of us who come to town infrequently, they must deal daily with issues that can escalate into major problems.

On the other hand, Kathy Epling, a homeless advocate and wife of Paul Epling   (shame on me for forgetting) partner of Paul Encimer, pictured above, says that she doesn’t understand why there is so much concern about the porta-potty.  “This is a finite, solvable problem that doesn’t have to be made into something large….It is pure good for everyone.”  She says that members of the community identified a problem–homeless and travelers were driven to urinating and defecating near the park because there were no public restrooms.  They decided that a porta-potty would solve the problem for both those needing to use a bathroom and for those distressed by the lack of hygiene in the park and surrounding areas.  They then approached a worker at the nearest local business, Southern Humboldt Builder’s Supply, to ascertain if there were any concerns.  There were and the problems were addressed.  One woman, Debra Carey rented a porta-potty with her own money (hoping to get donations from community members to defray the cost over time.) To assuage concerns about cleanliness, she even set up a twice a week cleaning schedule with the porta-potty company.

In a note today on Facebook, Debra Carey wrote, ” I just wanted to honor OUR VETS & Our Local Business community with this porta-potty so people can use the restroom with dignity and privacy.”

As a society we are grappling with a problem that in today’s current economic climate won’t go away. Frankly, we are depending on the business owners to absorb the costs of this problem and cushion the rest of us from directly dealing with our homeless–some of whom are mentally ill.  As a community we need to work with both the business owners and the homeless to ease the burden on the one while helping the other.

(As a note, Betty Chin’s public showers may seem impossible for our small area but a local builder, Jim Truitt, is willing to help with a permanent building designed to provide pleasant restrooms for tourist and homeless alike if the county would allow a permit. What can we do to help? )

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Photo provided by Kathy Epling