A local grassroots advocate for Lancaster’s unsheltered population is urging the city to make overnight toilet facilities available at or near Binns Park.
During the day, individuals have access to the public toilets in the breezeway connecting Ewell Plaza to East Marion Street. But once the breezeway’s gates are closed in the evening, there are no options available until they open again at 9 a.m.
The nearest is a portable toilet in Culliton Park, more than half a mile away, Dave Costarella said.
“This is a medical emergency on so many levels,” he wrote in a statement he posted on Facebook and sent to City Council members. There should be a Porta Potty “24/7” at every city park and near every public space, he said.
Each winter, Costarella provides clothing and other necessities to unsheltered individuals through his “My People on the Street” project. Earlier this year, he launched a project that pays people to tidy up city parks and plazas, now called “Hand Up Partners.”
Rebecca Geiser is deputy director for Health, Housing & Community Development in Lancaster’s Department of Community Planning & Economic Development.
This spring, her team and the Lancaster County Homelessness Coalition made a concerted effort to find a site for a portable toilet after the one at 125 N. Duke St., the Lancaster Public Library’s former location, was removed in connection with the library’s relocation to Ewell Plaza.
They came up empty she said. No private property owner could be found willing to host a facility, and the team determined none of the property owned by the city or an affiliate entity (such as the Lancaster Parking Authority) was suitable.
There were problems on a fairly regular basis with the Porta Potties installed during the pandemic, said Dave Aichele, who oversees the Downtown Investment District’s Clean & Safe Services at the Lancaster City Alliance.
The DID’s Clean Teams would encounter discarded needles, soiled interiors and the like, and “it did create a health hazard,” Aichele said. Most notably, the toilet outside the Lancaster City Visitor Center was set on fire, with the damage spreading to the adjacent building. (A York County man pleaded guilty to setting the blaze.)
At Binns Park, the lack of overnight facilities notwithstanding, the Clean Teams are not finding huge amounts of human waste, Aichele said. There have been occurrences, but they’re rare, perhaps once a month, “if that.”
In lieu of portable toilets downtown, the city is pursuing a permanent solution, Geiser said. It has ordered a “Portland Loo,” which it plans to install on the Prince Street Garage’s property at the corner of North Prince and West Orange streets.
Made mostly of steel, Portland Loos are designed to withstand vandalism and the rigors of urban environments. Lancaster’s purchase cost $172,710. Installation, which will be handled by city staff, is expected to cost no more than $15,000, Geiser said.
The item is expected to arrive next week, Geiser said. However, with winter coming, making concrete pouring and outdoor plumbing work impractical, it likely won’t be installed until March.
That said, “if circumstances allow for installation prior to that date, we will certainly avail ourselves of opportunities to accelerate this schedule,” Geiser said in an email.
DID Clean Teams would handle basic upkeep, with city staff as backup for plumbing or other repairs, she said.
That’s a positive step, Costarella said: But what are homeless individuals supposed to do in the meantime?
He said that when he heard the plan, he quipped: “I don’t think they can hold it that long.”
Amos Stolzfus is the director of the SoWe community group, based at Tenfold. SoWe pushed for the installation of the portable toilet at Culliton Park. There are permanent toilets there, but they are locked overnight.
Over the summer, up to a dozen unsheltered individuals were sleeping at the park, Stoltzfus said. With the weather turning colder, that has dropped to four or five, with up to about 20 individuals congregating during the day.
During the discussions leading up to the portable toilet’s installation, concerns were certainly raised about potential problems, Stoltzfus said. Indeed, a group of rowdy youths tipped it over a few days after it was placed this spring.
But that’s been the only incident, he said: Everything has gone fine since then and the regulars at Culliton Park are grateful it’s there.
“It has worked in Culliton,” he said. “It seems like it could work in other places.”
Costarella tried to speak to City Council about the issue on Monday, but it was a committee meeting, which does not provide for public comment on items not on the agenda. He said he plans to try again on Tuesday unless the issue is resolved.