While the search for a permanent daytime shelter in Madison continues and the city and county create temporary solutions for the city’s homeless, officials are focusing on access to restroom facilities.

Over the past month, the city installed Porta-Potties at locations on State Street and by the Capitol Square.

Jim O’Keefe, director of the Community Development Office, said the portable toilets are part of several temporary solutions to concerns regarding Madison’s homeless population until the permanent daytime shelter can open later this year. 

O’Keefe said there are also plans to eventually build permanent public bathroom facilities. He said plans were in place to have that happen by the end of February, and while that deadline has passed, city staff are still working on it.

Access to bathroom facilities has been more difficult for homeless people in Madison since the closing of the resource center and daytime shelter last spring, O’Keefe said. People are increasingly getting turned away from businesses, he said.

“Frankly it’s a fundamental, basic human right to have some private accommodations. What people were finding was the case in the absence of other alternatives, people were forced to use alleyways or behind buildings,” O’Keefe said. “There were public health issues or just basic human rights kind of concerns.”

As temporary ways of dealing with the lack of a daytime shelter, O’Keefe said people have been using the Madison Central Library, the City County Building and Bethel Lutheran Church as places to seek shelter during the daytime.

Leland Pan, Dane County District 5 supervisor and a member of the Homeless Issues Committee, said the most common way the homeless population has been able to use bathroom facilities has been through businesses, however many businesses do not allow for bathroom use unless someone is a paying customer.

Another problem for the homeless, Pan said, is access to bathroom facilities at night when many businesses are closed. He said he has heard complaints from businesses about public urination, but it is a difficult issue because often there is no other option for homeless people.

“Not only is this really about providing services for homeless folk, to provide them with some level of dignity and provide them with restroom facilities they can depend on but also it’s about ensuring that our community is well-kept,” Pan said. “It can be something that is beneficial to downtown businesses and folks who live downtown as well.”

O’Keefe said a lot of attention was placed on how the city might provide different services to the homeless during the city budget process late last year. These included bathroom accommodations, storage space, somewhere to do laundry and shower facilities, he said.

Pan said plans are in place to select a location for the permanent day shelter and have it ready by June, or at the latest before next winter.

“I think it’s vital that we provide services for homeless folk not only for their dignity and safety but also it benefits the whole community for everyone to have the services they need,” Pan said.