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Chris Rickert: Stance against toilets senseless

Chris Rickert: Stance against toilets senseless

For most of us — especially those of us with aging bladders — feeling the urge in the middle of the night is a problem easily solved: Get up, tramp groggily to the john, do our business and head back to our warm beds and sleep.

When your bed is the street, though, the process is a little more complicated.

That's basically all Allen Barkoff is saying in his thus far not-entirely-successful bid to provide porta-potties for Madison's Downtown homeless.

Barkoff — a retired biology teacher who's become something of a public advocate for the de facto homeless movement known as Occupy Madison — contacted me the other day after getting a frosty response from city officials to his potty proposal.

He said the need for porta-potties Downtown has been a regular refrain from the homeless people he knows. During the day, they can use the bathrooms at the Capitol, the public library or the City-County Building, he said, but "in the evening hours, there's really nothing."

The result is predictable: When nowhere is a potty, everywhere is a potty.

In response, Dane County Board member Heidi Wegleitner introduced a resolution last year that resulted in one porta-potty at the county parking ramp at the corner of West Main and South Henry streets.

It was installed Oct. 10, according to Travis Myren, county director of administration, and costs $85 per month to rent. So far, the county hasn't had any problems with it, he said, such as people tipping it over or using it as a place to sleep or do drugs. Mayor Paul Soglin, though, isn't sold on getting into the porta-potty business, according to Barkoff and Soglin spokeswoman Katie Crawley.

Crawley pointed to a 2008 Seattle Times article about public toilets in that city being used for prostitution and the drug trade, and said a porta-potty at Peace Park on State Street was "destroyed" a few years back.

There is some irony in this anti-potty stance as I've regularly found semi-permanent porta-potties parked in various other places around the city.

They were at the two Madison public schools where my son and daughter played coach-pitch baseball and T-ball, respectively. There was one near the bike path at the east end of Monona Terrace and still is one by the shelter at Brittingham Park — both common gathering points for the homeless.

Crawley said the city pays for potties in several parks, and the one near Monona Terrace was privately funded, but the city-budgeted potties are not for the homeless specifically.

Of course, given that the homeless are dealing with a range of problems — some self-inflicted — they aren't always the most responsible citizens. So there's some question whether we can be sure they'd be responsible enough to use more porta-potties if they were provided.

Barkoff acknowledged that he can't be sure they would.

But then, there are few guarantees in life already. A guaranteed place to empty one's bladder in the middle of the night (much less a roof over one's head) doesn't seem like a lot to ask.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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