Activist Raises Awareness Of SFFD's Gold Mine Of Public Toilets

Castro blogger and community activist Michael Petrelis is on a mission. A couple of missions, actually.

First, he's running as a write-in candidate for mayor. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, he wants to spread the word about public toilets: specifically, the fact that San Francisco Fire Department is sitting on a gold mine of them. Nearly all of the city's 43 fire stations have ground-floor bathrooms that are open to the public; here's a map.

SFFD station, 530 Sansome St. (Photo: Geri Koeppel/Hoodline)

"I’ve been always pushing for the public to have access to meetings, to documents," Petrelis said. "The government is for us." Earlier this year, he decided to try to get the Fire Department to open its restrooms to the public as well, particularly so the homeless population could have a place to go. 

"Back in February of this year, I went with this specific cause because as a person with AIDS, I see public health concerns with the homeless folks," he said. "They pee and poop on the streets. They don’t have a place to wash up. They’re touching the same Muni straps; the same public seats. It puts all of us at a potential for contracting diseases." (It's also pretty liberating for the non-homeless to not have to buy a $4 latte if we need to take a pee break.)

A Hoodline reporter contacted 311 about this health hazard. (Photo: Geri Koeppel/Hoodline)

Petrelis told us that throughout the spring, the SFFD told him they couldn’t open the facilities because of security. "The fire department has done a damn good job about keeping it unknown," he said, adding that it made him submit a request in writing to access a station's restroom.

SFFD spokesperson Mindy Talmadge said that public restrooms have always been the policy, but "it's not something we've put out on our billboards before." On July 30th, the SFFD issued a memo to all fire stations reiterating the policy: "San Francisco Fire Stations with ground-floor restroom facilities are available for public use. Members of the general public may use the ground-floor restroom facilities between the hours of 0900 and 1800 [9am–6pm]."

SFFD restroom, 530 Sansome St. (Photo: Geri Koeppel/Hoodline)

Petrelis also received an email from Talmadge that said to ensure that homeless individuals are aware of the public bathroom options, flyers will be distributed at homeless shelters.

"There is one caveat," she told us. "An officer of the station has the authority to use his judgment on who he allows to use the fire station." According to the memo, someone who is inebriated or "altered in any way" will not be allowed to use the restroom. "The health and safety of our members and the security of the Firehouse shall also factor into the Officer's discretion/decision."

In one instance, Talmadge said, someone stayed in a restroom for 30 minutes, and when the crews went in, "there were feces spread all over the walls and all over the place ... Are the firefighters responsible for cleaning up after someone who's spread feces all over the walls?"

Another issue: "If someone won't come out of the restroom, we're obliged to leave [a firefighter] behind," which makes their crew short. When asked at which station the feces incident occurred, Talmadge said she didn't know.

Petrelis says he isn't buying it. "I want to see the evidence that this person put feces all over the bathroom," he said. “I don’t believe her. Do we want to keep all of the firehouses inaccessible because one person may poop in the wrong place, and meanwhile, we have all this diarrhea on the street?"

Petrelis said he singled out fire stations because first responders "are well-trained to deal with all kinds of people.” He also questioned why SFFD stations can be "safe surrender" sites for babies, but not havens for those in need of quick relief.

"What if a baby is dropped off at 3pm one day and a nasty, big fire breaks out at 3:10pm?" Petrelis wrote in an email. "Will the baby be left alone at the station, taken to [the] fire, or will the firefighters make a stop at a hospital and leave the infant with nurses?"

Photo: Courtesy of Michael Petrelis

Petrelis said that after the memo went out, he tested the SFFD by stopping into the station at 135 Sanchez St. and ringing the bell for entry. "The guy didn’t know what I was talking about," he said. (A Hoodline reporter asked for entry to the restroom at the station at 530 Sansome St. and was allowed in, but told if the alarm sounded, she'd have to vacate.)

Petrelis wants to see more public meetings on this issue—indeed, more public meetings in general; he's pushing for the Fire Commission to air its meetings on—and more publicity about the restrooms. "I believe the department has been derelict in making the homeless population and the general population aware of this accessibility," he said.

In addition to the firehouses, the city has 25 automatic public toilets (those large dark green kiosks). It also recently introduced a Pit Stop program, offering portable toilets and sinks, used needle receptacles and dog-waste stations. It has three locations in the Tenderloin and one in SoMa.

The city also offers public toilets in many parks, parking garages, hospitals, recreation centers, senior centers, libraries and more; here is a list of all of them. Want to find one close to your neighborhood? Here's the same list, broken down by supervisory district.

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