As Grand Junction closes public bathrooms, a nonprofit brings relief and helps close the toilet gap

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4min 49sec
Stina Sieg/CPR News
Retired doctor Paul Padyk shows off the first-ever toilet built by his nonprofit, Toilet Equity. The organization is trying to increase toilet access across the community, especially for the city’s unhoused population. So far, it’s built seven composting toilets around town.

Colorado’s unhoused population has more than doubled in the past decade, to nearly 15,000, according to a 2023 report

Many of those people face the same question: Where can I go to the bathroom? 

In Grand Junction, like so many cities across the state and country, the answer is becoming increasingly complicated. In the fall of 2023, the city began closing parks that had become popular camping areas for unhoused people. It also began restricting and sometimes completely closing public restrooms across town. 

This mirrors a trend happening in cities around the U.S., as city leaders say that public bathrooms have become magnets for vandalism, drug use and other illegal activity. A lack of public toilets, however, creates problems for some of society’s most vulnerable people.

Christopher Bickford was living in his car when it broke down outside his Grand Junction church one Sunday morning.

Stina Sieg/CPR News
Christopher Bickford, a disabled vet, used to be unhoused and now does community service with Grand Junction's unhoused community. He says having few toilet options for unhoused people creates "extra stressors" for an already stressed population.

Then he realized he had to go — you know — and it was urgent. 

The church wasn’t open yet, so Bickford frantically ran for blocks to the nearest public bathroom in a park, “and I just missed it,” he said, with an embarrassed laugh. “When you got to go so bad and you get in that door, it's like it hits you even harder.”

These days, the disabled vet has an apartment. But when he was unhoused, soiling himself wasn’t just embarrassing, it was a logistical nightmare. It meant running back to his car to grab clothes and baby wipes, then running back to that toilet to clean himself up.

Not having a permanent home is hard enough without extra stressors, Bickford said.

The public bathroom facility he used is now closed, along with many others in Grand Junction. 

The city has mostly replaced closed brick-and-mortar bathrooms with portable toilets, but local retired doctor Paul Padyk said the city needs far more public bathrooms.

“You know, how many people raise their hand and say, ‘Oh, I'll manage poop!’” he said, with a smile. 

Padyk’s nonprofit, Toilet Equity, has responded to the public bathroom drought by building its own fleet of toilets. They’re small and simple wooden structures, like their very first one outside the Unitarian Universalist church. With a bright-blue exterior and mint-green interior, it resembles a regular portable toilet, with the exception of a big tub of sawdust wedged inside. After each deposit, users are instructed to add a scoop, both to help with the smell and to create compost. 

Padyk said his organization believes toilet proximity shouldn’t be tied to someone’s housing status. “The need is the same, regardless of whether you have a structure over your head or not,” he said.

Padyk was inspired to start Toilet Equity after traveling through parts of South America that had so few public bathrooms that human waste was out in the open. In Grand Junction, he’s started to see discarded toilet paper along the river.

“I mean, if you have unsheltered people, you have a toilet-access issue,” he said. “And if you don't have public toilets in your park spaces, you have a toilet-access issue for everybody.”

Grand Junction has about two dozen public restrooms — proportionally far more than Denver or San Francisco, which both have large unhoused communities. Seattle, another hotspot for unhoused people, does have about 200 bathrooms — but only one is open 24 hours.

Grand Junction officials want to provide public bathrooms for everyone, said city parks and recreation director Ken Sherbenou.

Stina Sieg/CPR News
Grand Junction Parks and Recreation Director Ken Sherbenou says the city is trying to maintain toilet access for the community, while restricting usage at some facilities that have become targets for drug use and vandalism.

“But I do think that the days of having the great amount of convenience that Grand Junction once had for public restroom availability, I think that day has passed.”

Sherbenou discussed the city’s toilet problems in an interview near the playground at popular Lincoln Park, where the traditional bathroom building doesn't open until 10 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. 

About a quarter of the city’s traditional public bathrooms are only open if a resident rents a nearby park shelter, which can cost nearly $100. When the bathrooms were open around the clock, Sherbenou said people would trash them, “from wires being cut that support the sinks to graffiti in the stalls to busted fixtures, sinks, toilets, those sorts of things."

The city has started a program to clean and monitor public bathrooms more frequently. Soon, it will install a self-cleaning bathroom near Main Street. The vandalism-resistant model cost $400,000, half of which was covered by the city’s downtown organization. 

While Sherbenou hopes all these measures help, he doesn’t believe they will completely fix the city’s public bathroom problems. “I don't think any community in Colorado or in the country has found a silver bullet.” 

But for unhoused people, every available bathroom matters. That includes the seven that Toilet Equity has placed around Grand Junction, with the hope to build more in the future. Several are outside the city’s resource center for unhoused people. 

More than 100 people use them a day, including Vickie Spencer. 

“Oh, it's wonderful,” said Spencer, sitting in her wheelchair and patting her dog, Baby. 

Unfortunately, there are no wheelchair-accessible toilets close to the park where they live together: a large grassy highway median that has become one of the only visible camping spots for downtown Grand Junction’s unhoused community. At the resource center, however, there’s a Toilet Equity bathroom large enough to accommodate Spencer’s chair — with a sturdy ramp. 

She calls it a “blessing.”

“But it's only so many hours out of a day,” she said. “What do I do the rest of the time? Like I said, I wear diapers.”

After being alerted, the city did install an accessible toilet in the park where Spencer lives, but it’s unclear whether she’ll be there to use it. The city council voted to ban tents in public parks, effective May 22.