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SoCal businesses debate closing bathrooms to homeless




Exterior view of Craig's Restaurant in Los Angeles, California.
Exterior view of Craig's Restaurant in Los Angeles, California.
Valerie Macon/Getty Images

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Some Starbucks in the Los Angeles area have closed their bathrooms to the public, in part because homeless people occupy the coffee shop's bathrooms for long stretches of time, bathing in them and leaving a mess for employees to clean.

A recent NPR piece notes that many homeless people are drawn to Starbucks coffee shops, which open early and offer free WiFi, when overnight shelters kick out patrons in the morning.

But Starbucks is hardly the only business facing tough choices. With a growing Los Angeles homeless population, many small businesses also must decide how to balance customer service, the needs of transients and maintaining an atmosphere that's welcoming to the rest of the public.

We asked business owners how they deal with homeless patrons.

Interview Highlights

Floyd in Echo Park: I work at a restaurant and we have reoccurring homeless people who come in and want to use the restroom. They’ll lock themselves in, be in there for 10 or 15 minutes and basically bathe in there, one person has shot up heroin. They clog the toilet with paper towels. So my restaurant’s policy is customers only now. And as an employee who is usually there, I have to monitor this.

Peter in Hollywood: As a business owner, I can understand why someone might want to close their restroom and not want to incur that kind of inconvenience. But why do they have to do that? It’s because as a city, as a community, we’re not providing these things. When the city locks bathrooms, it means nobody is using them. So where people going to go? They’re going to look to businesses.

Karen in Venice: The restrooms in Venice Beach have been closed for a long time except during peak daytime hours and it’s putting a burden on small businesses. It’s not only cruel to homeless people, it’s inconvenient for everyone. I used to go to Barnes and Noble in Venice with my two toddlers, and the restroom was locked and it still is 10 years later. We need to provide public restrooms for people to provide.

Martin in Huntington Beach:We want to do something for homeless people, but we also want to have boundaries because it’s detracting from the public value of the Huntington Beach Public Library.

Va Lecia Adams Kellum: Well, certainly they do have this same problem — and there’s no simple solution. There are so many generous business owners in Venice who try very hard to accommodate the homeless and it gets to be a real challenge when customers don’t have equal access to the space. Businesses deal with it in a number of different ways, including taking away outdoor seating and hiring security. Often times St. Joseph Center has offered to help and provide security in some of the spaces that are near our location. It’s a very challenging situation.

Adam Murray: There’s a great non-profit out of San Francisco that runs mobile showers and bathrooms for the homeless. They have buses that are equipped and allow people to use the bathroom. The buses travel around the city and go to the hot spots and do that on a regular basis. I would love to see Starbucks sponsor something like that in Los Angeles, or other businesses that are interested in doing that. Until we collectively come up with the will to tackle this problem and spend the money, we’re going to continue to see these problem escalate.

Guests

Va Lecia Adams Kellum, Executive Director of St. Joseph Center in Venice, which works with working poor families, and homeless men, women and children

Adam Murray, Executive Director, Inner City Law Center, a nonprofit law firm focused on housing and homelessness based  in Downtown LA