Two Albany churches are trying to team up to fix the lack of public toilet facilities downtown, but city regulations may be in the way of a permanent solution.
Pastors of the United Presbyterian Church and the Albany First Christian Church split the cost of installing a portable toilet and a motion-sensitive light on the grounds of the First Christian Church, 432 Ferry St. SW, which they put in place Nov. 7.
The idea was to both give people who are homeless a place to use the facilities, especially at night, and to make things easier for people who have to clean up their property when people without access to a toilet urinate or defecate on their grounds.
The Rev. Brandon Lewis, pastor of United Presbyterian Church, summed up the partnership in a written statement to the Democrat-Herald. "Our homeless neighbors among us are not just a problem to be solved," he wrote, "but are beloved sisters and brothers to be embraced. Offering them the use of a toilet is a simple and basic gesture of self-respect in our common humanity."
Problem: Albany's city code requires a permit for portable toilets, and restricts their installation to no more than 90 days, unless the director of public works agrees otherwise. Also, while the Albany City Council can agree to a nonconnection permit for any privy or other form of toilet not connected to a sewer line, even those permits aren't allowed for more than a year.
Unless the churches and the city can come to a different arrangement, the FCC toilet must be removed by Feb. 14, said Marilyn Smith, spokeswoman for the city.
The Rev. Tim Graves, lead pastor at First Christian, said he hasn't been made aware directly of either a permit requirement or a removal deadline but stands ready to work with Lewis on a solution.
"If we are required by the city to have a permit beyond 90 days or are informed we must remove the portable toilet from FCC property, we will consider our options with our Presbyterian partners," he said, adding: "Our failure as a city to provide for the basic dignity of our homeless neighbors by providing toilets is counter to the core value of the Christian faith. We are called to love God and our neighbors as ourselves."
Graves said the idea for the restroom came one day earlier this year when a member of his church's preschool staff arrived at the building early one morning and came across a woman relieving herself in the bushes.
He and Lewis are longtime friends who often look for ways to work together.
"Brandon and I spoke after our joint Labor Day worship service. He told me about having to clean up feces on UPC property," Graves said.
And, he added, he and a parishioner talked with guests at the church's monthly community meal "and they reiterated their struggle in finding a bathroom, especially after hours. The concern has floated around for some time at FCC but it rose to action level this fall."
Public bathrooms are few in Albany, the two pastors found.
"Park restrooms, like those at Monteith, are unavailable this time of year. There are public restrooms in City Hall and in Two Rivers market but they are closed after hours," Graves said.
City officials said they sympathize, but don't plan to offer any additional access because of the cost of operation.
Restrooms are open in Montieth, Bowman, Eleanor Hackleman, Takena Landing, Grand Prairie, Bryant, Timber Linn and Waverly parks from late March until mid-October, said Rick Barnett, the city's Parks and Facilities maintenance manager. They are to be open by 9 a.m. each day and locked between 9 and 10 at night.
The cost to operate the restrooms is a little more than $200 per day, Barnett said, which pencils out to $1,400 per week, or about $40,000 a year for the 28 weeks.
"When left open all night there is frequent vandalism and undesirable activities happening in these buildings," Barnett wrote in an email response to the Democrat-Herald. "Because of the possibility of freezing and because of cost to operate we (like most jurisdictions) cannot provide park restrooms year around."
During the restroom season, often slightly longer in the fall, Barnett said, the Parks department also provides portable toilets in 14 parks.
"Based on usage we provide a year round porta at Simpson, Waverly, Timber Linn, Periwinkle and Gibson Hill parks and the skatepark," Barnett said. "These each cost between $85 and $200 per month (depending on type of porta and number of cleanings a week). Portas are often vandalized or left a mess by users."
Chapter 9 of Albany's municipal code, Health and Sanitation, covers the placement and timing of portable restrooms. More information can be found on the city's website, https://www.cityofalbany.net/city-council/municipal-code.
Graves said he and Lewis have had no complaints about the restroom from the community so far.
"I have had those who are homeless seek me out at the community meal to thank me for the portapotty," he said. "Some individuals have even stopped by the office to thank me."
And, he added, "Our urination problem has stopped."