This porta-potty was placed by a construction team for workers on a downtown project.

Evanston is a City on the Go.

Okay, so much for the juvenile humor. But admit it. You probably chuckled when you saw the headline.

But this is actually a serious subject, one which combines not only biological necessity but also human dignity.

At a 4th Ward community meeting earlier this week, several residents angrily complained about being accosted by panhandlers, and also said that some apparently homeless individuals are urinating or defecating in public areas, usually near L stops.

City manager Luke Stowe told the meeting that he expects to budget for 10-12 portable toilets, or maybe even more, with locations to be figured out.

You may already see porta-potties around town, but those are put in by construction or road repair crews, and are removed once the work is completed. A few also are already located in city parks.

Betty Bogg, Director of Connections for the Homeless, told Evanston Now that the “lack of facilities” problem has been made worse by the closing of downtown businesses such as Panera Bread and Barnes & Noble, where people could use the bathroom with no questions asked.

Now, not only are there fewer places like that, but you’ll also frequently see signs saying “restrooms for customers only” in stores which do have facilities.

Of course, porta-potties come with their own potential problems, such as cost and maintenance.

Plus, while they provide an important service, they do not exactly add to the aesthetic appeal of wherever they are located.

Still, the city hall feeling seems to be that the need outweighs any negatives. So it looks like the issue will become “where” to put the portable toilets, rather than “whether” to put them anywhere at all.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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48 Comments

  1. You’d think Betty Bogg was deputy mayor given how many shots she calls for the City of Evanston. Between the removal of the signs discouraging giving to panhandlers and the introduction of an amenity for that same population, Evanston is becoming an even more attractive destination for all-day shakedowns. Just in time for the arrival of new and gullible NU students who can contribute to a September panhandler windfall, too.

    1. Hi Bort, I did not consult Connections about the signs or portable toilets. The signs were being vandalized and defaced and did not appear to reduce aggressive panhandling. As for portable toilets, public restrooms are becoming harder to find downtown, which impacts many people. Feel free to contact me to discuss further, at lstowe@cityofevanston.org or 847-448-8177. Thank you.

      1. Hi Luke: Regarding your comment that “public restrooms are becoming harder to find downtown”, I was not aware that there ever were public restrooms downtown with the possible exception of the public library. What there was, and still is, are restrooms in coffee shops and various other business’s which are there for the purposes of their customers. However in many cases these tend to be available to the general public also. So before you go ahead with this project I would suggest that you do an inventory of the restrooms that are available. There are numerous coffee shops downtown. There is also Whole Foods which has a restroom that is readily available. What about CVS or Walgreen?

        However if you do feel that there is a need to go ahead with this project I hope you will put some effort into the aesthetics of portable toilets. Portable toilets by themselves are ugly. However things can be done to improve the appearance. For example, I recently saw one in a park which was enclosed on 3 sides by an attractive wooden structure. Only the front was visible. This, in my opinion, greatly improved the look.

        Also congratulations on your new job as City Manager. I appreciate the fact the you are so willing to engage directly with the public.

  2. It’s a great initiative. but can the city invites artists to make them look better? Just like what they did to the traffic signal control boxes.

    1. Hi Joe, that is a terrific idea. I’ll check with staff to see if we can do that. Thanks for the suggestion!

      1. Why are these needed? After all these years,I have never seen it brought up at any time. Have you considered the unintended consequences? I have never seen them anywhere in this country.

      1. I appreciate that you took the time to reply, but I cannot imagine how you think attracting more panhandlers to downtown Evanston will make it a more pleasant place to live, work, or shop.

  3. I agree with finding a local artist to decorate the portapotties. Nick “Sick” Fisher does larger scale outdoor urban projects around Chicago; I bet he could do something very cool with them. Either way, I’m thankful the city is acting in consideration of the humanity and needs of some of our most vulnerable folks. Well done!

  4. Wilmette invested in a new and thriving outdoor restaurant scene. Evanston destroyed it’s downtown businesses and is installing porta-potties.

    Way to go Evanston!

    1. Thank you. I am on an entertainment committee, and we are looking to book restaurant space for an upcoming event. Because of my recent experiences with downtown panhandling (including be hassled by vagrants when I’ve been dining outside) – and now here come the porta – potties! – Evanston is no longer “on the plate”, so we will be looking at venues in Wilmette, Skokie, etc., where the attendees can be assured of a higher level of “public comfort”. Needless to say, this is revenue that Evanston will *not* be receiving…

  5. Any of the council members home owners near the downtown area? How about on Maple near the former Margarita Inn? How about near Albany House where House residents regularly harrass folks who walk down Main Street, as well as panhandle at the corner of Ridge and Asbury? Any of the city council members familiar with allowing their middle and high school students to go to the Etown dt area to visit the library only to have the kids call from distress from harassment by aggressive panhandlers?

    Any of the council members not only worried about safety but also plummeting home values?

    Suggestion: how about the Mayor, 4th Ward alderman, and any of the council members who are raising children here and own homes here, send your kids for a walk downtown and on Main Street, then invite the panhandlers to ask for money in front of your homes. It’s all good and well to (virtue signal) until it impacts you and your family.

  6. Portapotties will do very little to help our sad town. Main & Ridge has never been welcoming (or fun) for visitors, kids or elderly – not even 40 years ago when I first moved here. As for downtown, overall it’s the same mediocre lifeless downtown from the early 80’s. People blame landlords, taxes, various mayors, city council, the economy, Northwestern, etc., but still, downtown E-town continues to suck. There’s no nightlife, no live music venues, no vibrant outdoor dining scene, & now a whole lot more petty crime, aggressive pan handling &… portapotties? Thanks Daniel Biss, but no thanks.

    1. Wow! 40 years in a “sad” town that “sucks”….you really are a glutton for punishment!
      Here are some pretty great things that I was lucky enough to enjoy in Evanston just this summer alone that you claim don’t exist: had a wonderful glass of wine at the OUTDOOR tables at The Wine Goddess (two blocks from Main/Ridge…which happens to be a residential neighborhood that I live in, btw!), had a lovely OUTDOOR meal from DOC at the terrific Custer Oasis at which I also saw a terrific OUTDOOR concert, saw a fun live band playing on Dempster promoting all of the great businesses part of the Main Dempster Mile, had several terrific OUTDOOR meals at Found, went to a fantastic OUTDOOR Buddy Guy concert put on by Evanston’s very own Outdoor SPACE series, saw the Indigo Girls (also put on by SPACE) at Northwestern, had a yummy barbecue dinner OUTSIDE at Soul and Smoke, enjoyed a very fun-filled evening playing Bocce and eating terrific pizza at Union Squared’s OUTDOOR patio.
      No, Evanston is far from perfect; I dare you to find me a city, town or village that is.

      1. As a condo owner in Evanston with a 3-year old daughter that has been house hunting for the past 12-18 months, I would (almost irrefutably) consider Glenview, Wilmette, Northbrook, and Vernon Hills all to be a much better investment than Evanston at the moment. School districts along with safety have a lot to do with our decision to move, especially given the recent decline of Haven. There have been several shootings this year, many of which predictably took place near Howard/Dodge area, but one which took place about 100 yards from our condo NW of downtown (which we’re currently selling.) We really love many aspects of Evanston including the restaurant scene and walkability but VERY disappointed in the City’s leadership over the past 4-5 years (or lack thereof.) I anticipate the relative poverty rate to continue to cause problems as the demographics are transformed to overly progressive two-physician households in their $1,000,000 ivory towers alongside a permanent underclass struggling to make ends meet.

        1. I too enjoyed many of the same activities you listed here such as Custer Street fair, Dempster activities & Space /Out of Space concerts. None of these things(except outdoor dining at Found-which is closing) are located in downtown evanston which is what I was referring to. Downtown evanston sucks. Porta potties aren’t going to make downtown lively or fun. Homeless teens live in one of the parking garages. Residents get harassed trying to
          walk down the street. Tons of buildings sit empty. Look at all the restaurants (& movie theatre complex) that closed. And even the new million dollar fountain broke. It’s a mess.

          1. I also think downtown sucks. Maybe I’m asking too much of it, but I’d love for an area’s downtown to be a social and commerce hub. But it seems that there’s less and less to do downtown except eat, and there’s only so much a person can do that.

            In other towns I’ve visited recently, there seem to be a lot more community events in the simple spirit of having fun and meeting people. Here, it seems that events always seem to be held to serve a specific part of the population, a cause, or a charity.

            I’d love to meet more people and make friends, but it all feels ‘inclusive’ to the point of excluding ordinary people like me. Maybe I’m just too self conscious? IDK but I do know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

  7. I feel like this is a mistake. I’d rather tax money go to a rehabilitation program for these people. Offering a bandaid instead of a real solution isn’t really helping anyone and is more costly long term. I already stopped shopping downtown because it’s scary to be harassed and followed to your car as a woman. The problem has definitely gotten worse. But now to have porta potties everywhere….it’s going to make the downtown even less friendly and certainly less aesthetically pleasing. It’s a hard pass for me. I’d rather drive into another, nicer town and spend my money there.

  8. Rahm Emanuel, then chief of staff to President-elect Barack Obama, famously issued what has come to be known as Rahm’s rule: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that [is] it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

    Looks like Betty Bogg has taken this as her mantra. Where does Ms. Bogg live – in our Fourth Ward, or even in Evanston? I and many other concerned citizens live, vote, pay taxes, and invest in our Fourth Ward – so we have a *real* “equity” stake here – does she?

    She, in consort with Luke Stowe and others, appear to be taking advantage of every “crisis” to push their social work – informed “equity” agenda, which in turn is degrading the quality of our lives. This porta – potty contretemps is just the latest, and I expect more.

    “Our Betters” such as Ms. Bogg and Mr. Stowe like to lecture those of us who push back on their agenda, describing us as “racist”, “callous”, “uncaring” and so on. For them, our nice neighborhood is a playground for their “social experiments”. But public safety, a sense of “public order”, and ensuring that we who *live* here have a nice community is *not* a “social experiment” – this is called “real life” – and the actions of these apparent “outsiders” directly affects our real lives.

    Thank you for listening!

    PS: I am a Fourth Ward resident, and a senior. I have experienced homelessness, and formerly worked at prominent Chicago and Evanston homeless services agencies; I currently work for a local workforce development agency. I give generously to charities that assist low – income folks to attain better lives. I am also a pedestrian, and living on Grove I’ve seen a real decline in our public safety in the past several years…

  9. Rather than addressing the ongoing problem of homelessness, the strategy of providing outdoor toilets for the “homeless” will only compound the difficulties of residents and homeless alike. Homelessness is largely a function of mental and social dysfunctions, one of which is the delusion that outdoor space is a home. Hence, sleeping on the street, or, viewing the entire community as your public toilet.
    Moreover, we can attest to the use of portable toilets as living spaces, often quarreled over by the homeless. The city promises solutions but avoids facts,ie, the homeless need counselors social services, and jobs they can do and in which they can persist.
    Turning Evanston into a public latrine is a crappy idea.

  10. As a downtown Evanston resident, I am appalled that the city administrators would think the placement of outdoor bathrooms a plus for the community. Toilets were placed in the parking garage entrance areas of our block and they were gathering places for mentally agitated and irrational behaving individuals. One of whom moved his few belongings into the bathroom closet and defended it from all other users. I am being forced by these decisions to consider moving out of Evanston’s diverse, eco friendly and supportive community for those in need to find safety, security and beauty in a neighborhood elsewhere. Please help your residents who underwrite the social services for those in need, to stay and support this community.

  11. The portapotties may be a step in the right direction. But it may also could be another “feature” that is making Evanston so attractive to the homeless. Aside from the fact that Connections provides transport and busses people into Evanston, homeless are also coming on their own per police feedback because of the abundance of services we offer.
    What the 4th Ward really needs is to reinvest in downtown, in businesses, in making it a place people want to be. Connections is doing irreparable harm to the downtown and the council is allowing it.

    Evanston has lost great businesses to Wilmette because our officials do not respect the work of people who work to make a downtown area vibrant. They will have to choose how the want the 4th ward (and Evanston) to look- meth clinic, multiple other services include two other shelters, and a low barrier shelter, soup kitchen, etc etc at the sacrifice of the downtown OR will they decide the draw the line to protect the downtown? It is in their hands and the hands of the City Manager. People who have to win elections will never stand up for the small businesses or downtown.

  12. Wilmette’s downtown has a much more thriving outdoor dining experience, hundreds of times better than Evanston’s. We were just there last Friday evening and by 5.45p all of the outdoor seating at the nearby restaurants was full, so we got crepes and a bottle of wine at the French Nun’s bakery and sat at one of their outdoor tables to eat. I felt comfortable enough to leave my purse on a chair. I cannot imagine doing that anywhere in Evanston’s many downtown areas. It’s sad what a shell of a life Evanston has become.

  13. Evanston is headed in the wrong direction! Bring back more local businesses (w/ better incentives) and get rid of the porta potties and endless high rise developments. Interesting how those seem to go hand in hand…

  14. The Tribune created a map of all the public bathrooms available in Chicago. https://www.chicagotribune.com/investigations/ct-chicago-public-bathrooms-searchable-map-20211021-3heih2lqbnbhnizpsffkgc6xxy-story.html Can’t we do that too? Even they don’t provide public portapotties. Our map would include the library, city hall, beach houses, restaurants, churches, etc. I don’t endorse port a potties; don’t endorse painting them…lipstick on a pig.
    Why not use ARPA money to finally repair the fountain? If you insist on portapotties, maybe instead you could make the fountain a giant public shower and toilet.

    1. While I’m not keen on the idea of porta-potties downtown, a “map of public restrooms” would not include “restaurants.” They are very clearly NOT public.

      Also, beach bathrooms are closed for more than half the year.

      1. You get the idea. Don’t let minor limitations prevent enacting a superior alternative to portapotties, E Don. Additional alternative locales: Civic center, grocery stores, gas stations. (Beach house bathrooms can include a note of open dates, which roughly coincides with increase of panhandlers)

  15. Amazingly short sighted! Have a visit to LA or SF and see how such well intended acts of kindness are working out for the local residents, visitors, and the less fortunate homeless. It’s easy to foresee the unintended consequences of such a decision will only encourage undesirable outcomes and not encourage better long term outcomes.

  16. Let’s, for a moment, say you think public toilets are a good idea. The way Evanston is proposing to do it is typical of the half-baked way we do a lot of things: knee jerk, on the cheap, and without looking at other cities’ efforts.

    I am not against public toilets. But you need to do them right. Paris has about 400 ‘Sanisettes’ that are well-designed and self-cleaning. San Francisco has 25 self-cleaning toilets, which are modeled on the Parisian sansinettes.

    Evanston is proposing up to 12 porta potties? How can San Francisco get by with 25 public toilets and we need 12? That many porta potties is going to degrade the street experience for most residents and visitors.

    How much is this going to cost? Stowe says he is taking money out of the city budget. Why aren’t the Special Service Districts paying for it? In San Francisco the toilets are purchased by the company that leases public space for advertising. Has Stowe looked into that option?

    Why are we not paying any attention to the design? I appreciate people in the comments here saying “let the artists paint them”, but cmon. A painted porta potty is still a porta potty. It’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

    A normal functioning local government would see what works in other cities, prioritize good design, and be responsive to residents and taxpayers as opposed to out-of-town activists have undue influence on the city’s public spaces.

    On the subject of “out-of-towners” does anyone know if Stowe is actually living in Evanston? There is no moving allowance in his contract and as late as last month he was serving as the Village Clerk in Libertyville where he was previously an elected school board member.

    I understand the unique circumstances of Luke’s appointment and he has long ties to Libertyville, but I am not sure if it is a good look to have the city manager living in town. It has been bad enough over the years when you have senior managers living in other suburbs, but at least the city manager was living here. Now that is not the case.

    http://libertyville.com/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_09132022-1916

  17. The last person who should be criticized is Luke Stowe. He is the only person in government who has made a public comment in the local paper to tell people he is listening! Who cares where he lives, as long as he is putting his energy into bettering this town. The Mayor and many council members oftentimes don’t bother to reply to an email sent directly to them. Most of us who take issue with the Margarita is that no one has listened to those effected- Not the Mayor, not Nieuwsma, not Connections- even when it impacts basic safety. Having a leader go out of his way to listen to civic issues is more important to me than where they live by far.

    1. I think the idea is horrible, but I 100% appreciate Luke’s willingness to engage with people who disagree with him.

  18. Please, please, rethink this idea! As a longtime Evanston resident, I often went downtown to shop, eat, exercise at LA Fitness (now closed), meet with friends for a cup of coffee, etc. No more.

    Empty storefronts, panhandlers, & now “porta-potties” (?). Seriously? Who would brave the unsynchronized traffic lights, plethora of signs, speed humps, high parking rates, & so on to come from out of town for *what* exactly?

    Deal with the problem, don’t create still another one. Please.

  19. These are all good points but I’d like to highlight the underlying issue here…DRUGS. The reason people don’t feel safe downtown or in the Main Street area is because these are addicts who are aggressively looking to fund and use to feed their habit. A port-a-potty was put in Gray park but was eventually removed because people were still urinating and defecating on the streets. When you are using you don’t care where you go to the bathroom.

    Recently in broad daylight on the corner of Chicago and Main, a young man purchased drugs in front of residents and their kids. A few minutes later he was falling over possibly ODing and the police were called to revive him with Naloxone. This is what is happening in our town.

    All you have to do is search up drug videos from San Francisco, Portland, and Philadelphia and ask yourself is this what we want? There are cities in this country that don’t have this problem. But they solve this by using a carrot and stick approach. And they solve this by using their police. For those of you who are horrified by that idea, I ask you this. If you had a loved one using on the street would you not want that intervention? If it was your child or grandchild living in the downtown parking garage as someone mentioned above perhaps being used sexually for drugs, one possible hit away from death would you not be begging the police to intervene? I know I would.

    At some point being permissive is crueler than being zero tolerance.

  20. Please do the right thing for the town and get Betty Bogg out of here . No other municipality does the service work that Evanston does. No one can say that we do not pull our weight for the less fortunate ALREADY. We have to prioritize our own City now. Five minutes south is the third largest metropolis in America. Why doesn’t Connections go to them for their time, resources, space? Evanston has nothing more to give. If we do, it comes at a great cost.

  21. This porta-potty proposal is a TERRIBLE idea for all of the reasons articulated above. I don’t care if they become “works of art”; they are what they are and should not be placed on or near the streets of downtown Evanston or anywhere else in town. Instead, the city should use the funds that would be used and rent some empty stores end establish a couple of public restrooms out of “sight” and available to all.

  22. First, bouquets to the new city manager for engaging publicly on this issue.

    Many comments above imply that ordinary, taxpaying citizens would have no occasion to use these facilities. I believe that a quick Google search will reveal that housed people micturate and defecate just like the homeless. Needs in this area may be especially frequent with elderly people who have incontinence and related issues. And Evanston has a sizable population of the elderly, many of whom live in taxpaying facilities in or very close to downtown. Some of these people may respect signs in restaurants and other facilities that say that the public is not invited to use the restrooms. The restrooms on the lakefront are available only seasonally. Etc. I trust that, if these portapotties are installed, none of the people who have objected so vigorously to their presence would think of using them in an emergency.

    1. I am one of those “elderly”. Having lived adjacent to downtown for seven years, I’ve never had an issue with using the facilities of Target, Starbucks, or wherever if needed. In discussing this with some of the other “elderly” I know, they think putting porta – potties downtown is a daft idea. If we seniors needed such facilities, then we would have made some “noise” about it years ago – as far as I know this has not happened.

      As others have mentioned, these will not only be a smelly eyesore, but will attract drug users who need a handy place to shoot up, sleep, “camp out”, etc. This is already an issue with the public restrooms in the Evanston Public Library downtown; there is simply no need to further exacerbate this “quality of life” problem with porta – potties.

      1. Hi Gregory – You make a good point. In fact I was just downtown and had to “go”. I was passing a coffee shop on Davis at the time so I just walked in, walked to the restroom, did my “business” , and walked out. It was all good.

  23. What the heck is going on. This is a terrible idea. I curious if the decision makers are from Evanston?! Walgreens bathroom became a have for drug users why would these be any different!

  24. It’s embarrassing and frustrating to see what’s happened to Evanston’s downtown. It used to be a destination. Now it’s just gross and dangerous.

  25. As an LCSW who ran groups in these “psychiatric nursing homes” I can testify that they are for profit, they are in Evanston and are in effect dumping grounds for people with serious mental health issues. Evanston residents may feel good about providing porta potties and allowing panhandling but you shouldn’t feel good. You may not understand what is creating the current problems and how to solve them

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