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Will New Public Toilets on Colfax Relieve Crappy Situations?

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A mobile public bathroom opened for business yesterday next to Denver Police Department District 6 headquarters at Clarkson Street and East Colfax Avenue. Armed with three toilets and hydraulic suspension, the city-backed pisser represents a new push by Denver City Council to appease the bulging bladders of anyone along the East Colfax corridor who might hear nature’s call.

The new facility arrived almost a year after the city held a public listening session on the dearth of public restrooms in Denver; the trailer-bound bathroom is being given a three-to-six-month trial. The city is also considering reactivating permanent restrooms that have been dormant at Skyline and Commons parks. 

Though she says this project is the result of cooperation across district lines, at-large council representative Robin Kniech has been pushing this project since conversations began more than a year ago.

That's when a “Human Waste Map” demonstrated the need for flushable solutions along the 16th Street Mall and in Capitol Hill.

At an event introducing the shiny new port-a-trailer last week, Kniech said it would serve a wide stretch of the public: “entertainment and restaurant patrons...commuters on the bus and the bike, and...those without homes, those are probably the three biggest populations.”

For many businesses along the Colfax corridor, this facility will provide relief from demands for restrooms from non-paying customers.

Just across from the site, Cheeba Hut manager Matt Morrocco explains that three major concert venues nearby make it tough for him to offer the restaurant’s facilities to just anyone. 

At Tycoon, the new sushi and ramen joint on Colfax at Logan, a “Restrooms for Customers Only” sign hangs prominently in the doorway, next to a posted flier about the new public facility.

Co-owner Giao Giang says that until recently, her business allowed the general public to use its bathrooms. “We were finding there was a lot of homeless people who were using our restrooms,” she says, “and we were fine with that, but they were leaving it dirty.”

People would also disappear into her bathrooms for thirty to 45 minutes at a time. The last time she let a non-customer use the facility,  “we found a syringe,” she says — and that led to a sweeping change in policy. “We just decided for our safety and the safety of our employees that we not let people who are not customers use our restrooms,” she explains.

Like other business owners in the area, Giang says she's torn between compassion and self-preservation. “I’d love to be more helpful,” she continues. “I’ve just had a lot of bad experiences and I can’t...risk the health of any of our employees or myself or other business owners.”

Mike Kelly, a bartender at the Cheeky Monk, has encountered his fair share of bathroom woes. Recently, he says, a man was discovered asleep in the men's room — standing up . “He was probably on drugs,” he says.

“I think some people who are homeless have just given up hope,” Kelly continues. “When people have to use the bathroom in an alleyway all the time, it’s hard to keep that hope.”

The public restroom, which will be staffed by an attendant, should help with that.

According to Marcus Harris of Bayaud Enterprises, an organization that provides resources to people in poverty, “public facilities can provide temporary safety and privacy,” which areas of care that shelters do not often furnish. For him, this move by Denver City Council is a huge humanitarian gesture.

Elissa Hardy, a social worker at the Denver Public Library, says the facility could help end negative cycles faced by already vulnerable people.

"If someone is caught relieving themselves in public, they face being charged with a sex offense," she notes. Even if the repercussions are not that severe, the lack of proper facilities make it difficult to prepare for job or housing interviews.

No wonder this effort comes as such a relief.

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