A San Jose park that’s home to nearly 200 homeless residents was suddenly left without water — and city leaders initially suggested needles were to blame for clogging the drain.
The water has since been restored by reopening one of the park’s two restrooms. It’s a critical need, advocates say, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since April 1, San Jose closed water fountains and restrooms at parks across the city to stop the spread of COVID-19. But city leaders deemed water fountains and restrooms essential at Columbus Park because of its large homeless population.
“Initially we said close them all, but then we talked with our housing department, who provide services to the homeless and they said, ‘Hey, can we leave these bathrooms open?’ and we said sure,” Jon Cicirelli, director of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services Department, told San José Spotlight.
But the water was turned off on Dec. 14 when drains in one of the bathrooms clogged and the facility flooded. Both of the restrooms were closed for two weeks and while one has since reopened, the other will remain closed.
In an email obtained by San José Spotlight, Cicirelli said the water system was clogged “most likely due to needles and other debris.”
Parks department spokeswoman Charlotte Graham said in a later email to San José Spotlight that needles did not cause flooding that led to the restroom closure at Columbus Park.
Cicirelli said rampant vandalism, squatting and drug use in the restrooms at Columbus Park forced the closure of one of its two bathrooms for the foreseeable future. Graham said city officials and contractors have also encountered prostitution in the restrooms.
The flooding at one restroom was eventually resolved and it reopened on Dec. 29, but the other facility remains boarded-up.
The temporary closure included the restroom’s water fountains, along with the fountains near the park’s horseshoe pits – leaving homeless residents without a clean water source in the park for two weeks.
“This is where everybody came to get their water,” homeless resident Katherine Davis said when the fountains stopped running. “How can they turn this off? We’re not here because we want to be. Now some of us have to go beg for water from 7-Eleven.”
The city’s parks department oversees maintenance of 101 restrooms at 209 city parks, according to Graham, and some have experienced problems with needles clogging the plumbing.
Cicirelli told San José Spotlight that people used clothing to plug the restroom sinks and improvise baths, leading to inevitable flooding of the restroom and additional plumbing work to fix the clog. “Columbus Park is one of those (parks) that’s probably at the top of the list in terms of maintenance needs,” he said. “Things get broken on a fairly regular basis.”
Homeless resident Vince Hayes said that having restrooms near encampments is necessary for people who use them responsibly.
“If it’s after-hours, you just have to find a tree because most stores won’t let you use the bathroom. It’s definitely better for everyone to have something here,” he said. “Plus people who come down here just to use the ballfields need a bathroom, too.”
A single portable toilet and hand-washing station was placed outside the closed restrooms about a week after they were boarded up – but the toilet was not being cleaned often enough, said Hayes.
After homeless advocate Gail Osmer brought Hayes’ concerns to City Hall two additional portable toilets and another hand-washing station were added, in addition to reopening the other restroom facility and the park’s water fountains.
“I think it’s a Band-Aid on a big problem,” said Kellie Goodman, a homeless resident who lives in her car near the park.
She said the rest of the encampment should not be punished with one less bathroom because of the actions of a few people.
“In the homeless community, we have multiple mentally ill people, they would get inside the bathrooms and think they’re hearing voices,” she said. “Most of us use the bathroom as a bathroom so it shouldn’t be all boarded up.”
Cicirelli said maintaining the facilities is becoming increasingly difficult because of the frequent vandalism.
“That’s why we put the porta potties out there in the meantime, because we still haven’t got the second one open yet,” he said, adding that the city is considering demolishing the two bathrooms and turning them into one central facility.
To ensure the restrooms are not easily vandalized, Cicirelli said the city won’t install soap dispensers that could be taken off the walls.
“I know a lot of people have their opinions about homeless people but there’s a lot of clever homeless folks out there. They have skills,” he said. “We’re always trying to get ahead of the vandalism and illicit activity, but it’s tough.”
Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.