Pubdate: Mon, 3 May 1999
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 1999 San Francisco Chronicle
Author: John Wildermuth, Chronicle Staff Writer


Private, roomy facilities perfect for heroin users

To the dismay of local officials, San Francisco's new street toilets are the
unwitting co-stars of a grim new television documentary on heroin use in the

In ``Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street,'' which has been playing
on HBO, Berkeley filmmaker Steven Okazaki follows a group of strung-out
junkies, some of whom use the sleek green pay toilets as a 25-cent shooting

Although the facilities at Sixth and Mission streets and United Nations
Plaza were the toilets of choice in Okazaki's film, they are not the only
ones drawing attention from police.

``It's sort of an ideal place to do drugs, and we warned about that right
from the get-go,'' said officer Sherman Ackerson, a San Francisco police
spokesman. ``It's a lighted, locked place and if people are going to do
drugs, they do them there.''

One sequence in the bleak film shows two teenage girls sitting on the floor
of the 84-square-foot bathroom at Sixth and Mission, cooking their heroin
into a liquid over an open flame. When someone outside bangs on the locked
door, they yell for him to go away.

``We get 20 minutes here and we're going to use them all!'' one of the girls
yells as she readies her syringe.

City officials argue that the scene is an anomaly and that by almost any
standard, the street toilet program has been a San Francisco success story.
From the time the first one was installed in June 1997 by the French-based
J.C. Decaux company, tourists, residents, street people and politicians have
sung their praises.

``We haven't received any complaints about them,'' said Jake Szeto, who runs
the street toilet program for the city's Department of Public Works. ``Right
now, we have over 30 written requests to put them in at new sites and none
to take them out.''

The 20 automated toilets now on the streets are high-tech wonders, with
power doors, self-cleaning commodes and automatic sinks. They are kept clean
and in top working order by Decaux technicians, who visit them all at least
once a day.

``Our people are out there every morning at 6 a.m., fixing the toilets and
eliminating any graffiti,'' said Francois Nion, a company vice president.
``People see our technicians in their uniforms and company trucks and know
we're taking care of them.''

About 1.8 million people have used the street toilets since they were first
installed. At the busiest sites -- Fisherman's Wharf, U.N. Plaza, Powell at
Market and Market at Castro -- more than 100 people a day use a quarter or a
free token for as long as 20 minutes of privacy.

There are problems, however. Outside Boeddeker Park, at Eddy and Jones
streets in the Tenderloin, police play a constant cat-and-mouse game with
drug dealers and addicts who use the hulking metal bathroom for business and

Sergeant Joe Garrity of the Police Department's Tenderloin Task Force chases
drug users out of that pay toilet almost every day.

``It's an ongoing problem,'' he said. ``When we made a push to clean up the
area in January, we had eight arrests in one day there. Now it's about two
or three a week.''

The police get regular complaints from other people on the street who say
the drug users are monopolizing the toilets and keeping them from their
intended use.

``Handicapped people often can't get in to use the toilets,'' Garrity said.
``We've got a lot of people in the area who use wheelchairs and they have

The illicit use of the street toilets does not come as a surprise to Decaux
officials, who warned early on that the large bathrooms used on San
Francisco streets were an invitation to trouble. Instead, they recommended
much smaller facilities, the size of the kiosks now used as newsstands.

``It's just a matter of common sense,'' Nion said. ``If two or three or five
guys can get in (a locked toilet), it's different from an airline-style
toilet for one person. The smaller one is not as inviting for misuse.''

But the smaller facilities could not accommodate wheelchairs, so they
weren't legal under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Because the
disabled need the additional space, the street toilets were designed to meet
those specifications.

Crime problems have been limited to only a few of the toilets, most of them
in areas that already had plenty of troubles, Nion said. In addition to the
toilets at Boeddeker Park and Sixth and Mission, hot spots for drugs,
vandalism and other crimes have plagued the facilities at the 16th and
Mission BART station and McCauley Park at Ellis and O'Farrell streets.

Additional toilets will soon be turning up on city streets. As many as 10
more could be in service over the next 18 months.

One of those likely will be at Haight and Cole streets, where residents have
changed their tune on the subject of street toilets.

``When we originally moved to put one at Golden Gate Park, at Stanyan and
Waller, the residents were adamant that they didn't want one inside the
Haight itself,'' Nion said. ``But now that they've seen how well that one
works, people are requesting the new one at Haight and Cole.''

No one believes that the police problems at San Francisco's street toilets
are going away anytime soon, but no one's blaming the French imports for the
city's growing heroin problem, either.

``The social problem is the crime and drug use, rather than the toilets,''
said Department of Public Works official Szeto, who as the point man for the
project has to deal with the type of troubles Okazaki's film highlighted.

``We're providing a public service to people,'' he said. ``What we have to
decide is whether the service provided outweighs any problems there may

- ---
MAP posted-by: Don Beck