At Burning Man, we call them Blue Rooms, but they are known in different regions as Drop Zones, Tee Pees, Thunder Boxes, Donation Huts and the now-famous Portland Loos. If you read this column regularly, you know I've been dancing in my pants to get better public restroom facilities downtown for street folk and homeless people for years. The Pioneer Park permanent bathrooms were closed for safety reasons (drugs, sex, sleeping, camping) and portable units were installed closer to the street where cops could keep an eye on things. As merchants and residents of downtown, we know that allowing strangers into our restrooms can be risky.
Portland, Ore., had similar problems. Several years ago, the city installed stainless steel toilets in its decrepit downtown areas to be used free as public facilities. The doors are open at the bottom and top so passersby can see your feet and maybe your head if you're tall enough when you are not actually sitting down. At night, they have an eerie blue light—a beacon for those in need. The Portland Loos have been so successful that cities all over the country have installed similar public toilets. Salt Lake City, after years of planning, fundraising, fund-losing, wrong installations and delays, opened two Salt Lake City Loos on 500 West and 200 South this past fall to rave reviews.
There's always a line of people wanting to get in to do their business. Sadly, though, the see-through drop zones have not stopped people from going in, shooting up and passing out. On Feb. 13, police reported a 45-year-old male as overdosed and sitting/passed out in one of the units. Security at the nearby shelter didn't have a key, nor did the Salt Lake City Fire Department, so of course the new loo had to be forced open. The paramedics slammed him with two doses of Narcan (an opiate antidote) and when he came to, he refused any further treatment and walked away.
Heroin use is up all over the city, state and country. The mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., wants his city to host the nation's first supervised heroin-injection facility. Basically, you'd go in, shoot up your drugs and a nurse would stand by in case of a medical emergency.
Despite the efforts of many, Salt Lake City still doesn't have a needle-exchange program. That could change if the Legislature passes House Bill 308 this session. The bill would authorize a needle-exchange program for Utah. If it doesn't pass, maybe I'll get my friends in the 'hood to sponsor our own exchange and attach needle dispensers and disposal containers to our "loos" as an upgrade for the Salt Lake City. n