Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to hike in the countryside of southwestern France. Seeing another culture and its farming economy at 3 miles per hour is not only a broadening experience, but it allows you to examine how they do things.
Some of those things seem quaint to our eyes and others open our eyes. They have the same problems to solve, but they don’t always do it in the same way.
My companions and I came to a small town in the beautiful countryside that had a train station. We needed toilet facilities and, fortunately, they had some. What a pleasant experience!
Sometimes the pressure of the moment causes me to really concentrate. First, one needs to know that, in France, it is not uncommon to find a urinal on the side of a building with only the slightest shielding partition. This train station was no exception. But the most interesting part was yet to come.
In addition to the urinals, there was an indoor toilet. But not just any indoor toilet. The small room with a toilet and sink was made entirely of stainless steel. Floor, walls, ceiling and fixtures. We tried to read the French signs with limited success, but a simplistic interpretation of the French signage revealed its true secret.
There was a row of five lights above the outside door. Each of the lights went on at three minute intervals. Like a countdown to a rocket launch. Every 15 minutes, the entire room was washed down through the perforated ceiling into the floor drain. Not a lot of water — but enough. Anyone inside would get pretty wet. The toilet paper was in a protected enclosure where it wouldn’t get wet.
If you saw that the room was soon to be washed and your business was going to take longer, you waited. If you had enough time, you proceeded.
The facility was a bit damp but was always available and no one camped inside. Simple, sanitary, nearly indestructible. A clever solution to a very human problem.
Everyone sees the growth in our community of the homeless population. Cynicism as to its root cause doesn’t solve it or deal with its consequences for the community. Walking the urban streets quickly demonstrates that even the homeless need a toilet, just as I did on my hike in France.
Unfortunately, the insult to our olfactory senses in Kern County makes it clear that we do not have a good solution. Many of our downtown sidewalks, doorways and storefronts are being used for an unintended purpose. Signs on the doors of many businesses stating they do not have public toilets show the problem requires another approach. We can’t blame businesses for taking that attitude because it isn’t their job to provide public toilets.
Recent counts of the homeless showed about a 50 percent increase in people living out in the open so there are more people needing toilets. Those counts of the homeless can also tell us where most of them have found a place to stay. Some are in locations where we can reduce the impact on them and us by accommodating just a bit to their immediate human needs.
While the long term solution is to find housing, provide counseling, and jobs for the homeless, they have other needs right now.
Just as it was for my friends and I walking in the fields of another country, we had short term needs. They were solved by a clever toilet design. Perhaps we can be as compassionate and farsighted.
Here is my Modest Proposal: Bakersfield and Kern County should provide toilet facilities to serve areas where the homeless are known to reside. These facilities should be available 24 hours a day, safe, clean and built to withstand use by those who might not always be the best caretakers.