When There’s No Alternative (Part II)

My father immigrated to this country as a refugee following World War II, believing, as many did, and continue to do, that the awful conditions he experienced in refugee camps would be left behind in the Old World. The poem on the Statue of Liberty that welcomed my father and countless others to the U.S. reads, “Give me your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

In last week’s posting, I talked about another international visitor to our shores, the UN Independent Expert on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, who was conducting a mission to the U.S., and going to visit a tent city in Sacramento, CA. The testimony she heard there, put together by our partners at Legal Services of Northern California and Safe Ground was compelling, and the Independent Expert was moved to strong words in discussing it in her preliminary report, issued on Friday:

As a part of the mission, I examined the situation of the homeless with regard to access to water and sanitation. Up to 3.5 million people experience homelessness in the United States every year. In some U.S. cities, homelessness is being increasingly criminalized. Local statutes prohibiting public urination and defecation, while facially constitutional are often discriminatory in their effects. Such discrimination often occurs because such statutes are enforced against homeless individuals, who often have no access to public restrooms and are given no alternatives.

In Sacramento, California I visited a community of homeless people. I met Tim, who called himself the “sanitation technician” for this community. He engineered a sanitation system that consists of a seat with a two-layered plastic bag underneath. Every week Tim collects the bags full of human waste, which vary in weight between 130 to 230 pounds, and hauls them on his bicycle a few miles to a local public restroom. Once a toilet becomes available, he empties the bags’ contents; packs the plastic bags with leftover residue inside a third plastic bag; ties it securely and disposes of them in the garbage; and then he sanitizes his hands with water and lemon. Tim has said that even though this job is difficult, he does it for the community, especially the women. The fact that Tim is left to do this is unacceptable, an affront to human dignity and a violation of human rights that may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. An immediate, interim solution is to ensure access to restrooms facilities in public places, including during the night.

That these conditions persist in 2011, right here in our backyard, in camps like those visited by the Independent Expert, belies our ideal of an America lying beyond that “golden door” and should shame us. Our governments not only condone the existence of these conditions but, rather than doing something constructive to alleviate the problem, criminalize those who have no choice but to live with their dignity impaired. This should move every American to demand better.

-Eric Tars, Human Rights Program Director

Photo credit: Ludovic Bertron
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3 Responses to When There’s No Alternative (Part II)

  1. Phil Rhein says:

    If there is any way of passing this information along to Tim in Sacremento, or anyone else in a similar situation, I would appreciate it.

    There is a simple and effective solution to the sanitation issues Tim is dealing with, which I learned about last year – humanure composting. Before you dismiss this as crackpot ravings, please note the method described below involves far less time hauiling or dealing with human fecal matter than Tim is already described as having.

    Our homeless shelter hosts a client reading program and last year I contacted a variety of local sources to ask for the donation of reading materials. One of the people who very generously donated books to our program was Joseph Jenkins of Pennsylvania – he has published a book called THE HUMANURE HANDBOOK and more information can be found at http://humanurehandbook.com/

    In short, he suggests using ordinary 5-gallon buckets and compost techniques to dispose of human waste; one simply uses these toilets in the normal way [the bucket takes the place of a toilet bowl] and then covers the material with a dry, biodegradeable plant material such as sawdust or even grass clippings – according to Jenkins, this will completely eliminate any odor or pest attraction.

    Once the bucket toilet is filled, it is emptied into an outdoor compost pile, the bucket scrubbed out with the use of rainwater collected in a nearby barrel and the compost completely covered once more, this time using a more bulky material like straw or grass clippings – doing so not only masks odor and prevents the infestation of pests but also provides the heat blanket necessary to break down any harmful organisms in the fecal matter and transform it, in the space of approximately 18-24 months, into compost suitable for use in gardening of any kind.

    By Jenkin’s account, he’s raised his family for years on food grown using this type of compost and none have suffered any ill effects. The book details methods of both making one of these compost toilets and the compost area to recycle the contents – one of the suggestions describes using a number of scrap wooden shipping pallets to make a waist-high enclosure to contain the compost long enough for the natural, organic process to take effect.

    This method offers several advantages over the system Tim is currently using – he’d no longer need to transport these heavy bags of waste, the “waste” itself would be recycled into something useful and it’s a system which can be easily adapted to almost any location with ready access to the relevant raw materials.

    From what i understand after visiting his website, Jenkins has recently been traveling to Haiti to demonstrate the use of this sort of process in the wake of the earthquake and economic devastation.

    In closing, I’ll just note that I have no direct relationship with Jenkins or his various business endeavors, aside from being the reciepient of a generous donation he made to our clients. If you or someone you know is interested in this concept, please pass the information along.

  2. don wiley says:

    I greatly appreciate the articles written. I am homeless in Biloxi,MS. We too are feeling discrimination not only from law enforcement but also from the very agencies in goverment who are paid to represent all Americans. You will get more help if your are an illegal alien needing housing and a job than if you are a citizen. We are told to get a job to get low income housing then told from another agency get housing so they will help us find a job. While in the meantime some of the bigger companies who might have work in entry level,low pay positions use H1B1 worker or outright illegal.

  3. Robert says:

    Downtown Sacramento is a homeless ghetto and the city does really nothing about! It’s unsafe, dangerous to be with a family on the bike trails, the river, anywhere! We saw 3 different people taking dumbs out in public,, downtown sac is disgusting! Why would the Kings want to stay there lol!

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