Sanitation for the Homeless in the US

  • dandreatta
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Sanitation for the Homeless in the US

Note by moderator: A related thread about an initiative to provide sanitation for the homeless in Seattle in the U.S. is here:
forum.susana.org/180-urban-informal-sett...eople-in-seattle-u-s

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In my home city (Columbus, Ohio, USA) there are some hundreds of homeless people who camp out all or part of the year. It occurs to me that their situation is not so different from refugee camps, and work to improve their sanitation conditions might lead to insights applicable to other places. As such, I'm going to start working with local homeless organizations to provide better sanitation, or at least better than the present open defacation.

The attached sketch contains my preliminary plan. Does anyone have thoughts? The sketch is roughly to scale, and the pit would be wider on the right end away from the inlet duct and narrower on the left end. It would be a dry system, as any flush water would freeze in the winter.

The light cover would be light lumber covered with branches. In the cool climate smells should be minimal, especially with the lid closed. The inlet would be inside a privacy enclosure, not shown in the sketch. At this point I'm not sure if the users would prefer to sit or squat, but that detail would be added based on their preferences.

In particular, I'm worried about fecal matter getting stuck either at location A or location B in the sketch. Does anyone have experience with this? In asking these questions I'm reminded of the quote from one of my cookstove colleagues, "If I'm smart I'll learn from my mistakes, but if I'm really smart I'll learn from your mistakes". Does anyone have any mistakes (or good outcomes) than can share to help make me really smart.

Dale Andreatta,
Ph.D., P.E.

Dale Andreatta, Ph.D., P.E.
Mechanical Engineer

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  • Marijn Zandee
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Re: Sanitation for the Homeless in the US

Dear Dale,

It seems you are essentially proposing to build a waterless pit latrine.

Some comments on your idea:

-First of all, what is the ground water situation? Please make sure the leaching water does not contaminate water sources (there is a lot of info on this forum regarding this)

-I think it would be better to have a straight vertical drop from your squatting position / pedestal for the feces to fall, this would prevent clogging.

-For more inspiration, maybe check out the Eawag/Sandec compendium of sanitation technologies ( www.eawag.ch/fileadmin/Domain1/Abteilung...2nd_Ed_Lowres_1p.pdf ), or search for Peter Morgan's "arborloo" and "fossa altana" designs.

-Finally, if you do not have any additive (lime, soil) to the dry pit, I would expect the smell to get quite bad, even in colder climates.

Regards

Marijn

Marijn Zandee

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  • hjoyell
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Re: Sanitation for the Homeless in the US

Thank you Dale for taking interest in this topic and initiative to make a difference in the lives of houseless individuals.

The most important mistake I have made in the past is designing a system without really investing time with the community beforehand. I am a mid-westener as well (Indiana is my home state) and know the compulsion to want to just go in and fix a problem. However, taking the time to really learn from the people in the camp and to see what they want is an important part of the design process. You hinted at this when you mentioned if they would prefer to squat or sit. You are on the right track in thinking about asking these types of questions. I suggest being as transparent as you can be with the community about your ideas and begin as open and respectful as possible to hearing their suggestions. There are many examples of good intentioned projects failing because there was no 'buy-in' from those who the system was designed to serve.

During conversations with the houseless I suggest breaching the topic of operation and maintenance. All systems require some degree of maintenance. One of my personal concerns when I have built wastewater systems is that the lack of education and support from the community will result in a failed system and then someone will get sick or it will become a source of pollution. The culture of the camp should give you sense of how much responsibility people will take for maintaining a system. Again, if they are invested and involved from the beginning you will have better luck in creating a system that is more sustainable, even for a short time.

I agree with Marjin that you need to learn about the groundwater. You should be able to find the water table levels through county GIS data, which is freely available to the public. Sometimes extension offices can also help you determine soil type and water table information. When you acquire these I would be happy to determine the feasibility of the plan based on the estimated long-term acceptance rate of the soil. Your drawing reminds me of a cesspool, which will eventually stink and be a source of 'yuck'. I agree with Marjin that if you go this route you need an additive. Old sawdust, ash, or ground up limestone would even work. Lime is very caustic but also reduces a risk for transmitting pathogens. But you have to be clear that each person needs to toss some of the additive after they use the toilet.

The document Marjin attached is awesome and would be a great tool to print out and take to the community to show them some ideas and get the conversation going. In reflection on the systems I have worked on in the past, going with a dry toilet system is ideal in a lot of situations. For one, separating the urine from the feces reduces smell. Also, the 'pit' won't fill as quickly.

What are the septic system/flush toilet codes like in the area? Have you spoken with anyone in the county or city? I would hate for you to get in trouble or give the city a reason to breakup the camp. If there are laws in the area against cesspools then you might create a situation where the city has grounds for dismantling the camp based on environmental concerns. Note: I recognize that open dedication is potentially a worse situation but it is 'non-point' source of pollution and therefore harder to assign blame. A concentrated area could be an easier target and even be cause for a fine.

I hope I am not scaring you off from this endeavor, I just want to try and anticipate how things could go wrong so that they won't. It is an important issue to address and I think your comparison of a refuge camp is poignant. I wonder if that angle could be effective in gaining concessions from city/county codes or be a way to address the need for more compassion and humanity around houseless people. I am happy to keep brainstorming with you and encourage you to continue this effort in Ohio.

Best Wishes,
Hayley Joyell Smith

Hayley Joyell Smith, MS
Geoscience Education Researcher
Specializing in Ethnohydrology

Website:HayleyJoyellSmith.com
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  • abrown
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Re: Sanitation for the Homeless in the US

Greetings, Dale.

First, you are not alone. Unfortunately, this is occurring across the US. There is an increase in the number/size of group camps here. Governmental policies seem to combine sanitation as part of a shelter issue. So people unable or unwilling to go into shelters are left to fend for themselves. With the closure of US public toilets, along with the stigma of appearing unhoused, finding adequate toilet and hygiene facilities is difficult for those living outside. I commend your efforts to think about on-site solutions, and I believe they are an interim step in solving a larger structural problem. Policy-change has to happen simultaneously to also increase access to public toilets, but on-site solutions (hand-washing stations, showers, toilets, etc.) can help improve the mental and physical health of those living outside more immediately. So I encourage you to keep working on this issue. Here is a working paper that I drafted on informal group camps and sanitation conditions in the US. You might find it informative in terms of statistics and approaches for collaboration.

Second, there are many groups across the US facing the same problems. You can see a little survey that I conducted for PHLUSH here . Perhaps it would be useful to have a nationwide Google Hangout soon with service providers and houseless individuals to strategize about about approaches to address this problem. We would be happy put everyone in contact with each other. Maybe a three-prong approach could be: 1) create an accessible toolbox of information about safe sanitation/hygiene systems that could be constructed in such places, 2) develop an education and awareness campaign that could be used in camps to raise awareness about using such systems, 3) think about policy-change efforts that could happen simultaneously. I feel like the GAPS Guide from France tried to employ these kinds of approaches in group camps, and we could learn a lot from their efforts. The guide needs to be translated into English to share with those in the US. They also have other guides outlining different sanitation solutions built based on the natural environment and community needs.

Third, there are many on WASH engineers on this forum. Since I work on the social side of things, I defer to them when addressing the feasibility of your sketch. But so much research has happened around appropriate technology, it might not be necessary to re-invent the wheel.

Anyhow, always happy to talk more any time.

Kind Regards.
Abby

Read more about my work and find my contact information at:
www.abigailbrown.net
www.waterfortheages.org
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  • abrown
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Re: Sanitation for the Homeless in the US

Hi Hayley. Our replies crossed. Great information you provide, and we both seem to agree that there are multiple avenues that have to be pursued. Not just the technology. 1) Client needs and long-term adoption; 2) appropriate technologies for the natural environment and community; and 3) government and community support.

Informal camps are difficult because the community and governmental officials typically don't want these camps to exist. In fact, lack of sanitation is often used as a reason to kick everyone out of these sites when they are deemed a public-health risk to the greater community. So campers disperse and build new camps elsewhere [again without adequate sanitation]. But I think there could be some efforts that work even in this highly-mobile situation.

On-site solutions should address: toilet and hygiene needs (e.g. hand-washing, safe water storage, water purification, menstrual hygiene management). Toilets might be more difficult to construct depending on codes, but other aspects could be easier to implement. Tippy-tap hand-sink construction information could be shared right away with these groups of people. Water storage containers could be distributed along with information about purification. Paris sometimes gives out jerry cans and maps of public water/toilet facilities to people living on the street [see attachment]. SODIS information could be shared or water-purification tablets. Chris Canaday once wrote a great post for the PHLUSH blog about a minimalist urine diversion toilet. Perhaps that could be shared in pamphlet form. Small tents could be built for menstruate hygiene management with pad disposal areas. Other that I'm forgetting?

Seems like a toolbox could be created with these different approaches. Then, service providers could collaborate with communities to move forward with solutions, and each camp will be different. I think that's what they have done with GAPS in a way. But I'm not sure if they addressed menstrual hygiene management. That would be a question for Lael.

Have a great day! Good to chat on the forum!
Abby

Read more about my work and find my contact information at:
www.abigailbrown.net
www.waterfortheages.org

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  • nazimuddin
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Re: Sanitation for the Homeless in the US

Dear Dale,

Thanks for sharing your ideas on sanitation for homeless people. I am surprised to see that the homeless people in your place practice open defecation. We have conducted a scoping study in Bangladesh and we found such scenario in Dhaka. I have shared some of the part of this study in this section.

If possible can you plan urine diversion toilet (design can be adjusted based on the user preference) to avoid any unnecessary mixing of urine and feces in the system. Ecological Sanitation principal can applied for this. It could be useful for such number of homeless people. It may also reduce the risk of any ground or surface water contamination. However, it may need an efficient management system. If you are interested I can provide some of the technical and social ideas. In fact, you can find lots of such materials online and also through SuSanA documents.

I have conducted some studies in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia(the coldest capital in the world with -40 degree C) with USTB-ACF funded project. We did have efficient emptying service, collection, transportation, storage and treatment(composting) based on urine diversion toilets/ecosan toilets. The whole process was not that expensive like the one with centralized system. We proved that these technologies are feasible even in challenging environment. I also agree with Brown regarding the on-site solutions which can be also explored.

Thank you
Best regards
Nazim

Sayed Mohammad Nazim Uddin, PhD
Post-Doctoral Fellow & Sessional Instructor
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Victoria, BC, Canada
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  • canaday
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Re: Sanitation for the Homeless in the US

Hi Dale and everyone,

I would suggest that homeless people need a simpler and more portable option. And the "light cover" of planks does not seem too available, inexpensive or long-lasting.

Thanks, Abby, for mentioning my article on a Minimalist UDDT. I just wanted to comment that the latest version is on my blog in English and Spanish:
inodoroseco.blogspot.com/2013/10/a-free-...ist-uddt-part-1.html
inodoroseco.blogspot.com/2013/10/a-free-...ist-uddt-part-2.html
inodoroseco.blogspot.com/2013/11/un-inod...o-que-cualquier.html

Another little update: a discarded (or even broken) 20-liter plastic jug ("jerry can", sorry for the ethnic slur against Germans) can be acquired somewhere, one side of it can be cut 12 cm high to hold the polypropylene sack open (and preventing any contamination of the floor where it is used). The rest of the jug can be cut 5 cm up each corner, so it can expand just enough to function as a lid, for when it is not in use.

The portable urinal described in my article is very useful, as it allows people (esp. women) to urinate where they have privacy and then spread the urine on the soil.

If one does want to have a pit in the ground, I would set it up as an ArborLoo, with shallow (< 1 meter) holes and the soil dug out can be stored and added as cover material. When the hole fills, it gets moved to another hole and preferably a tree gets planted. Some sort of sturdy, lightweight, recycled floor could be made. The privacy walls can be of whatever one likes. The water table does need to be deep in the ground. Urine can still be kept separate via the described urinal, esp. if the ArborLoo is for squatting.

Best wishes,
Chris

Conservation Biologist and EcoSan Promoter
Omaere Ethnobotanical Park
Puyo, Pastaza, Ecuador, South America
inodoroseco.blogspot.com
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  • smecca
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Re: Sanitation for the Homeless in the US

Dale,
I might be able to help you with our GSAP Microflush toilets even for climates like those you experience in Columbus. Contact me directly so that we can talk about the specific application. I am in Spain at the moment but will be available next week (401-263-4011) This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
..Steve Mecca

Steve Mecca for my late father:

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  • F H Mughal
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Re: Sanitation for the Homeless in the US

Dear Dale, Hayley Joyell and Abby,

I would like to refer to your aspect of homeless people camps. To set the stage, I’m quoting your respective comments:

Dale: In my home city (Columbus, Ohio, USA) there are some hundreds of homeless people who camp out all or part of the year. It occurs to me that their situation is not so different from refugee camps, and work to improve their sanitation conditions might lead to insights applicable to other places. As such, I'm going to start working with local homeless organizations to provide better sanitation, or at least better than the present open defecation.


Hayley Joyell Smith: I am a mid-westener as well (Indiana is my home state) - - presumably, you have homeless people in Indiana.

Abby: First, you are not alone. Unfortunately, this is occurring across the US. There is an increase in the number/size of group camps here. Governmental policies seem to combine sanitation as part of a shelter issue. So people unable or unwilling to go into shelters are left to fend for themselves.

I’ll join Nazim in saying that , I’m surprised to learn that you have homeless people camps in US, and that, they practice open defecation (OD). Homeless people camps and people practicing OD, are common problems in poor developing countries, like Pakistan. OD is also practiced in India and Bangladesh. It is almost unbelievable to note that homeless people camps and OD practice exist in US.

Could I request all three of you to kindly give more details of the homeless people camps, like, is it a recent development; reasons that lead to people becoming homeless; how many camps are there (rough estimation); government’s perception of the camps, future of camps, etc.

I’m attaching some publications that would help in enhancing the understanding of sanitation in rural settings. The literature review paper (attached) says:

The literature is dramatically skewed towards water resources, and overwhelmingly focused on conflicts, at the expense of basic sanitation and hygiene. More initiatives towards the acknowledgement of indigenous peoples’ world-views and institutions in all aspects of the water management cycle are needed. To this end, the development of effective intercultural dialogue mechanisms is crucial.

Fig. 8.1, pp 131, in Chap 8 of WHO publication (attached) must be looked at.

Kind regards,

F H Mughal

F H Mughal (Mr.)
Karachi, Pakistan

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  • KaiMikkel
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Re: Sanitation for the Homeless in the US

I am writing to lend support to all of the very wise comments made by Hayley and also to second the recommendations made by Chris Canaday. Taking the time to suss out and then respect the declared needs of a group is crucial. Thereafter, deploying the simplest technology to meet the declared need is often the most effective.

Good luck! :)

Kai Mikkel Førlie

Founding Member of Water-Wise Vermont (formerly Vermonters Against Toxic Sludge)
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  • muench
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Re: Sanitation for the Homeless in the US

Very interesting conversation, thanks.

Mughal, you asked:

I’m surprised to learn that you have homeless people camps in US, and that, they practice open defecation (OD). Homeless people camps and people practicing OD, are common problems in poor developing countries, like Pakistan. OD is also practiced in India and Bangladesh. It is almost unbelievable to note that homeless people camps and OD practice exist in US.

I agree, this can be surprising.

I recommend to you this article in Wikipedia which explains some of the underlying causes of homelessness in the US and initiatives underway to tackle this and to provide shelter:
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeless_shelter

(I'd love to add some sanitation content to this article as well)

Regards,
Elisabeth

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funded via SEI project until January 2019 ( www.susana.org/en/resources/projects/details/127 )

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  • Carol McCreary
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Re: Sanitation for the Homeless in the US

Hi,

It’s great to see this discussion of toilets for unhoused urban Americans. Developing one or more appropriate technologies which can prove successful will require the experience of people around the world.

US cities have had networked sewers for more than a century. They are path dependent on technologies that crushingly expensive and hurt the environment in a host of ways. At the some time US building and plumbing codes are locked in and very difficult to change. Getting permission for prototyping is very difficult.

As I see it, the experience of other counties is the only way we'll find solutions. Let’s use the SuSanA Forum to exchange ideas. Last century had a people from rich countries building toilets for people in poor countries. Lots of failure. Now the good work is being done by professions in and from the developing countries.

To help you all help us here in the US, I thought I’d attach a couple of articles on the socio-economic dynamics of poverty in our cities, particularly here on the West Coast. Why are so many Seattlites, Portlanders and SanFranciscans homeless anyway? And what have their lives been and what are they like now? And what are their local governments doing to help?

sfist.com/2016/02/11/71_of_sf_homeless_once_had_homes_in.php
71% of SF Homeless Once Had Homes in SF by Caleb Pershan. SFist News. Feb 11, 2016
  • People without houses once had homes. 71 percent of them.
  • San Francisco's homelessness epidemic is “homegrown,” due to factors within the city itself.
  • This figure runs counter to a popular theory that San Francisco is so generous with its assistance money and programs that it attracts a majority of homeless people from other rural or urban.
  • US Cities conduct one night counts. This one by the nonprofit Applied Survey Research is a head count of homeless people, including those sleeping in shelters.
  • The city now allocates $241 million to homeless services, $84 million more than in 2011. But where, The Chronicle asks, is that going? Answer: All over the place, with keeping track difficult or impossible. The City has over 400 contracts with 76 private organizations, most of them nonprofits, for providing services to the homeless. And no single system tracks the effects of that $241 million annual investment as it's spread out among them.
This Is How We Count Homeless People. By Caleb Pershan. SFist News. Jan 20, 2015
sfist.com/2015/01/20/at_last_count_there_were.php
  • Homeless people, according to federal law, live in shelters or places "not designed or ordinarily used for regular sleeping accommodation for human beings,"including in vehicles, camping in parks, or squatting in abandoned buildings.
  • However, San Frisco city law has a broader homelessness definition, and would include those staying temporarily in SROs (Single Residency Occupancy, or older hotels, often with kitchenettes.)
wraphome.org/what/homeless-bill-of-rights/oregon-r2r/
The Oregon Statewide Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign. This is one part of 3 statewide campaigns in California, Colorado and Oregon. The Homeless Bill of Rights is a grassroots organizing campaign fighting to end the criminalization of poor and homeless people’s existence

Articles on Toilets for Homeless People


www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/matier-ross/...mpid=twitter-premium
City’s latrine team tries to keep public toilets tolerable. By Matier & Ross, San Francisco Chronicle, September 1, 2015.

sfist.com/2016/11/29/petition_launches_to_bring_more_pub.php
Petition Demands More Public Toilets For Homeless In The Tenderloin. By Jack Morse in SFist News, Nov 29, 2016.

www.dropbox.com/s/yuxx7zsjgy7iz9d/Draft%...ail%20Brown.pdf?dl=0
Bathed in Modernity: Spatial Relegation of Houseless Individuals and Liberatory
Approaches for Water and Sanitation in Informal Camps in the United States.
Working paper by Abby Brown of the University of California Santa Cruz, which is referenced in an earlier post to this thread.
  • Participatory and empowering approaches for collaborating with those living in group camps can improve WASH access and advocacy.
  • Such programs have not been systematically undertaken, and research connecting WASH to health outcomes and gender burdens has not been conducted among unhoused people in the United States.
www.phlush.org/2016/02/25/teen-leads-mov...-of-houseless-women/
Teen leads movement bringing menstrual hygiene supplies to thousands of houseless women. PHLUSH. Feb 25, 2016

www.phlush.org/2015/11/04/us-capital-cit...restroom-initiative/
US capital city lacks public toilets: People for Fairness Coalition launches critical initiative. Abby Brown. Nov 4, 2015

www.phlush.org/2015/05/05/global-homeles...-france-for-the-usa/
Global Homeless Day: Toilet Solutions from France for the USA. Abby Brown.
May 5, 2015

www.phlush.org/2015/04/07/staying-human-...ene-while-houseless/
Staying human through hygiene while houseless. PHLUSH. April 7, 2015

www.phlush.org/2013/10/14/a-minimalist-c...r-disaster-stricken/
A Free Minimalist Urine-diverting Dry Toilet (UDDT) for the Unhoused, Poor or Disaster-stricken. Chris Canaday. Oct 14, 2013.

www.phlush.org/2012/10/21/water-and-toil...for-humans-wo-homes/
Water and Toilets for Humans w/o Homes. Abby Brown. Oct 21, 2012

Carol McCreary
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Toilet availability is a human right and well-designed sanitation systems restore health to our cities, our waters and our soils.
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