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Public Defecation A Downtown Issue

By Dan McKay
Journal Staff Writer
       Ilene Gallegos remembers it clearly — a man lingering by the mail slot of her Downtown office building.
    She assumed he was just dropping something off. She was right about that, but it wasn't the mail he left behind.
    The man had gone to the bathroom right there, during business hours.
    "We were wondering what he was doing there," Gallegos, assistant manager of a law office near Fifth and Tijeras NW. "We opened the door, and there it was."
    It wasn't a one-time occurrence. Gallegos said she often cleans up urine and feces left by the homeless population.
    Others have similar complaints. A spokesman for the Downtown Action Team says its clean team deals every day with the aftermath of people relieving themselves in public.
    The problem isn't isolated to Downtown, either. Albuquerque's flood control authority finds human feces in its stormwater channels, meaning the stuff makes its way into the river untreated.
    But just what to do about the problem isn't clear. A portable toilet was installed outside the Downtown library several years ago, and employees say it has cut the amount of defecation on their property. But others said the portable john is an attractive spot for drug activity and prostitution.
    Larry, a homeless man who didn't give his last name, said more portable toilets would be helpful. The one by the library is relatively clean, but "it's hotter than hell in there. It's like a sauna."
    Sigmund Bloom, a criminal defense attorney with an office Downtown, said Albuquerque's homeless people need more places to go. Someone recently defecated on a wall outside his office.
    "They back up against the wall and let 'er loose," Bloom said.
    But city officials say portable johns aren't necessarily the answer.
    Ed Adams, the top executive under Mayor Martin Chávez, said a resident in the Southeast Heights recently pleaded for a portable toilet at a nearby park, only to have regrets once he got it. A prostitute ended up taking over the place.
    Portable toilets "solve one problem, but they create a number of others," Adams said. "I'm not sure what the answer is."
    Pete Dinelli, Albuquerque's chief public safety officer, said the best solutions are more police activity and the watchfulness of business owners. Some homeless people are mentally ill, he said, and won't use a portable toilet.
    "The only effective tool is complete vigilance and a presence by police," he said. "Porta Potties in the Downtown area would be disastrous."
    Albuquerque police are working to establish a permanent presence in the Downtown business district, Dinelli said.
    John Kelly, executive engineer of the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority, said a recent study estimated that "human/sewage" sources comprise about 16 percent of the fecal matter in the Rio Grande. That number might overstate the amount of public defecation because it includes effluent from floor drains, garbage disposals and other sources, he said.
    The flood control authority has installed barriers under some underpasses to make them less hospitable to pigeons and humans alike. But fecal matter makes it into the river from other sources, too, Kelly said.
    "If you drop something on the ground in Albuquerque, it's going to wash into the river one way or another," he said.
    City Council President Isaac Benton said Downtown defecation is a "public health issue" that he's tried to tackle through affordable housing projects. Higher-quality public restrooms are worth considering, he said.
    "The difficulty is just maintaining these things," Benton said. "It would be a burden on the city, but it sounds like something we should be looking into."
    Brian Morris, executive director of the nonprofit Downtown Action Team, said public defecation is a problem business districts across the country face. He believes the problem is actually declining in Albuquerque, partly because of crisis intervention teams that police use to address the root causes of homelessness on a person-by-person basis.
    For businesses facing a defecation problem, Morris suggests adding better lighting or barriers to keep people out of dark corners and alcoves. If the problem continues, he said people can call DAT at 764-2800 or the police at 242-COPS.
    Residents who want to feed the homeless should do it through a donation to an established shelter or group that can also offer restrooms, Morris said.
    As for the library portable, the city said it costs about $200 a month to maintain.
    A man who gave his name as Fred said he goes there sometimes but can understand why the city doesn't add more, given the seedy behavior that can happen inside.
    "If (the mayor) puts in too many, they're going to abuse it," he said.

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