Mark Hayward's City Matters: Bathrooms can be hard to come by for the homeless near Veterans ParkBy MARK HAYWARD
October 13. 2017 8:47PM
ALLEYWAYS, BUSHES and little parcels of downtown have turned into open-air toilets, where the call of nature meets whatever corner of nature can be found.
Downtown visitors to Manchester and the homeless alike are denied one of their basic needs by keeping public restrooms at Veterans Park under lock and key, according to local gadfly and perennial mayoral candidate Glenn Ouellette.
“They go behind buildings and go in the parks. There’s feces in the street. It’s horrible,” Ouellette said.
Ouellette has teamed up with a lawyer, who cites a United Nations report that says access to water and sanitary facilities are basic human rights. Federal civil rights laws could be used to challenge prosecution of public urinaters if the city locks its bathrooms, warns lawyer Jake Skinner.
And the city could be breaching its duties under the state’s public health and waste disposal laws, Skinner wrote.
To make matters worse, while the city closes bathrooms at Veterans Park, they are open and available at Livingston Park. Flush toilets for the privileged, a bush for the rest.
“We’re homeless. When you really get down to it, there’s no help for the homeless,” said Kimberly, 50, who sat at benches on Merrimack and Chestnut streets.
Weekdays aren’t bad, Kimberly said. City Hall, the Hillsborough County courthouse and the library are all open and have public restrooms.
But once the government buildings close, it gets more challenging.
After 5 p.m., Elaine Dugas relieves herself in a bushy area behind the Dahar Law Firm building on Merrimack Street. But the building owner recently cut back the bushes, which makes it uncomfortable for Dugas.
“It’s easier for men,” Dugas said, noting that two women will usually walk out of plain sight to relieve themselves. Her companion was recently kicked out of New Horizons, so they are living outside, she said.
“I just go wherever I can,” said her companion, Ron Cross.
Cross and Dugas spoke to me at Veterans Park. The alcove to the closed restrooms smells like urine. White napkins lay at the base of a 2-foot high retaining wall, a likely sign of bathroom use.
Parks Operations Manager Tom Mattson said the city closed the restrooms several years ago. The public restrooms are in a building that houses the downtown visitor center, and volunteers started complaining.
People cited drinking and drug use in the restrooms. At times, the restrooms would be smeared with feces and trashed, Mattson said.
The Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce operates the visitor center, and president Michael Skelton said he wouldn’t want the bathrooms open without a parks attendant on duty.
But he downplayed the issue. The Veterans Park bathrooms are open during events such as the Chili Festival and Cruisin’ Downtown.
“When there really is a public demand for facilities, we make it available,” Skelton said. Meanwhile, there are enough hotels and restaurants downtown to offer facilities for the vast majority of visitors, he said.
Such talk irks Ouellette, who points out that visitor center ambassadors will let people into the bathrooms depending on how well they’re dressed.
“That’s discrimination,” he said. (They let Ouellette and me in last week; the stench repelled us.)
Pat Long, the alderman whose ward includes downtown, said he favors opening the bathrooms. In the last four to five months, downtown business owners have complained about human waste, he said.
But he stressed it won’t solve the problem entirely. People used the outdoors even when the restrooms were open, he said. The problem is far worse in Valley Cemetery, which Long said reeks of human waste.
Long said a camera could be installed in the Veterans Park hallways leading to the bathrooms, providing some security. He said the restrooms would have to be cleaned on a daily basis.
He said they could remain open 24 hours if users respected them. Officially, the park closes at 11 p.m.
Last week, the issue got a nudge, and the Administration Committee is expected to consider it next month.
Long said the city should think about a day shelter for the homeless, which would provide showers, social services, and bathrooms.
“It’s all about quality of life,” Long said, “not only for them, but for everybody.”
Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.