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Seattle business owner puts up homemade outhouses in Pioneer Square

For business owners in Pioneer Square, public urination is more than just a nuisance. It's become such a problem one business owner decided to build her own public toilets.

"The waste in the alley cooks in the sun, sometimes seeps through the wall, comes through the doors," said Joanna Urrego of Klondike Penny's Old Time Portrait Studio.

On the Fourth of July, Joanna Urrego decided to take matters into her own hands. She set up two homemade outhouses complete with little carved half moons near the entrance to her photo studio in Seattle's Occidental Park.

"People used them and it wasn't just homeless people. People that were shopping in the neighborhood used them. Tourists took pictures of them. My headcount, I estimated about 80 people had used the outhouses," said Urrego.

Authorities were not pleased with the outhouse. Urrego was briefly handcuffed and asked to take down her guerrilla toilets later in the afternoon. Her toilets didn't stand long, but it was clear at a meeting in Pioneer Square last week, she's not the only one frustrated for a solution.

"I had to tell a lady to leave as she was relieving herself behind the dumpsters right next to our front door," said one man at a public meeting at the Grand Central Arcade in Pioneer Square.

Willie Parish, the Executive Director of the Bread of Life Mission, said that they are trying to provide relief, but it is not always welcome.

"I've literally walked by people that were sitting, laying down, sleeping bags, eating, in front of businesses and said, 'You can go to the mission to stay. There is no cost for you to stay here tonight.' They have basically said, 'I want to stay here. I like it out here. I don't want anyone to tell me what to do.'"

One man who self-identified as homeless, told the audience he tried to go to shelters to sleep at night but he'd been turned away because they were too full or cost money.

"I don't know where you guys want us to go. I feel what you guys are doing is trying to punish us for us being homeless. That's what it feels like to me," he said.

He told the audience he's been in town for three months and he hitchhiked here from Missouri to experience a Seattle tradition.

"I've been traveling because I want to go to the Hempfest," the man said.

Leslie Smith, with the Alliance for Pioneer Square, said she understands Urrego's frustrations and why she turned to creating vigilante toilets.

"We have real issues of people with nowhere to go to the bathroom and people are relieving themselves in our public spaces and in our alleys and it's not OK. It's not OK for them to have to do it. It's not OK for the business owners. So I understand Joanna's frustration, I understand her guerrilla action," said Smith.

Money for expanded human services will not be available until January, but the city parks department did announce it is adding two more uniformed rangers to Occidental Park and Cal Anderson Park.

Urrego said park rangers alone likely won't solve the problem.

"It needs to come from above. They need to give these police and these rangers something to work with because right now it's just chasing people and writing tickets. It's complete inattention to very basic human needs, sanitation. I don't know if we need to have another Bubonic plague to be reminded why it's a good idea to keep areas clean," said Urrego.

When asked if she would ever be bringing her toilets back, she said she's definitely not ruling it out.

"I can tell you one thing, they are not going to be dismantled."

Libby Denkmann, Ron & Don Show Producer
Libby Denkmann is producer of KIRO Radio's The Ron & Don Show (weekdays 3-7). Libby is always on the run - literally.
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