Salt Lake City leaders weigh bathroom situation impacting city streets, Jordan River

Jun 8, 2024, 6:46 PM | Updated: Jun 10, 2024, 2:39 pm

A homeless woman washes her face after filling an empty Coke bottle with water from the Jordan Rive...

A homeless woman washes her face after filling an empty Coke bottle with water from the Jordan River in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 22, 2024. The bridge over the river on North Temple at the west end of the Utah State Fairpark is the epicenter of the drug trade in the area. It is also the very spot on the river the LHM Company plans to clean up and incorporate into a riverwalk as part of its development. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

(Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — John Hall limped up to the podium but stood tall before the Salt Lake City Council on Tuesday as he asked them for help.

“I’m John, and I’m homeless,” Hall said, before diving into a story about the first time he was told he couldn’t use someone’s restroom because of his housing situation.

“I had to choose between food and taking a shower,” he said. “Homeless is so much more than not having a home; it’s utter despair. And you can help us by giving us restrooms and a place to keep clean.”

Hall’s plea was one of many that members of Utah’s unsheltered population have made at City Council meetings in recent months. They’ve asked for more public restroom access, arguing that the lack of public bathrooms or closure of existing bathrooms has forced residents experiencing homelessness to relieve themselves on the streets.

The lack of access to basic hygiene can create significant health issues among the homeless population and pose a risk to the general public. Hall told the council that his foot had been amputated because he was unable to keep a wound clean while living on the street.

Others said the experience is utterly humiliating.

“Do you know how embarrassing it is to go No. 2 inside bushes? It degrades us,” said Rashad Grey, who said he became homeless within the past year.

At the same time, Salt Lake City leaders say they’ve received complaints from residents about feces in the street or on public trails. It causes additional environmental concerns, largely because all street water — and anything dumped onto it — drains into the Jordan River.

The river is also at risk of people dumping their recreational vehicles’ black water into it, adding more concerns about its water quality.

All of this is why the City Council is now taking a deeper look at the combined issues.

About $100,000 is already expected to be allocated to study citywide parks’ restroom policy and practices and conceptual designs, as well as a test of a new design at Fairmont Park. But members of the Salt Lake City Council also plan to direct another $500,000 from the 2025 fiscal year budget toward citywide short-term relief.

The City Council also debated another $100,000 that could go toward studying Jordan River water quality concerns potentially tied to the issue, but it opted for a “legislative intent” instead for its sustainability and public utilities departments to seek out a study of water quality concerns.

The City Council will apply for a $500,000 federal grant toward general public safety along the Jordan River, Salt Lake City Councilman Alejandro Puy told KSL.com. He added that the grant — expected to be decided on later this year — will dictate whether the city will “have the money to actually do it immediately or not.”

“But certainly we put forward a significant amount of money for a short-term solution related to bathrooms — Jordan River bathrooms, RVs, our sheltered and unsheltered neighbors,” he said. “We’re trying to address all of these problems at once, which is hard.”

Growing issues

Aside from public comments during City Council meetings, those urging the council to consider bathrooms also engaged in a letter-writing campaign. The homeless advocacy group Unsheltered Utah asked for the city to consider funding in its upcoming budget, but business owners and residents have also voiced their frustration with the city’s response to human excrement.

Even with winter overflow beds staying online through spring, shelter occupancy remains at about 90% — leaving few options for the growing homeless population.

“Quit turning your eye on us,” Hall said. “Set up some areas where we can put up tents and have a home again. Give us a shower, a restroom, things that we need that you guys take for granted.”

The Jordan River has had its own problems. It’s viewed as an “impaired waterway” by state officials and Laura Briefer, Salt Lake City’s public utilities director, says that E. coli is a concern the city is monitoring.

Trying to find a solution

Puy said the City Council heard the concerns loud and clear over the past few weeks, but it also led to some friction between his colleagues.

Salt Lake City Councilman Chris Wharton said the council’s approach to the issue in the work session was “a little bit in reverse” or “backward” in including a budget request that is so specific. Puy disagreed, saying residents responded to seeing this issue not addressed in the budget.

The $600,000 that the council agreed to in a straw poll would combine the issues, narrowing what could have been over $1 million. It offers money for the Salt Lake City mayor’s office to explore short-term solutions, which could be portable restrooms or extra monitoring of public restrooms to make sure they remain clean. The city could partner with nonprofit organizations by giving them control of bathrooms.

Puy said the plan will likely try to balance out the concerns residents and businesses have brought about portable restrooms drawing in camps in certain areas, which is why he said a simple issue on paper “is not that easy.”

As for the Jordan River, the City Council clarified on Thursday that the city’s sustainability office would work with city and state agencies to determine how the city carries out the study. But it could help determine if there are water quality issues tied to the lack of public bathrooms, septic tank issues from nearby buildings, if it’s from RV black water or if the issues are coming from upstream of the city.

Salt Lake City Council Chairwoman Victoria Petro said she supports the measure because she believes it can solve multiple city issues, adding that the situation “is getting worse.”

City leaders said they ultimately hope the money allocated to issues will help turn things around. While some within Utah’s homeless community thanked the City Council for adding more money toward the public bathroom situation on Tuesday, Puy said he’d like even more money directed to that and the Jordan River.

“We need to find a solution to address this. Putting our head in the sand is not an option,” he said. “We’re giving the administration funding and a direction, and hoping that they can come back for a plan for us.”

Correction: A previous version stated that the Salt Lake City Council approved $100,000 toward a Jordan River water quality study. The City Council leaned toward that decision during its Tuesday meeting but switched it to a legislative intent during its Thursday meeting.

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Salt Lake City leaders weigh bathroom situation impacting city streets, Jordan River