Beyond bathrooms: ‘Safety concerns’ lead to removal of portable toilets from Veterans Park

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Newly-installed portable toilets came in handy during the 2019 Taco Tour. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH – Two portable public toilets that have been stationed downtown on the perimeter of Veterans Park are gone. They were removed Thursday, according to Parks and Recreation Director Mark Gomez. He said the decision was made by Manchester Police Chief Allen Aldenberg, citing safety concerns.

The portables were installed in 2019 after the mayor and board of aldermen voted to give them a try on a temporary basis, a remedy for an ongoing issue of a lack of access to the public bathrooms located inside the visitor’s center. Those bathrooms were closed to the public about 10 years ago due to continuous vandalism and lack of funding for an attendant to oversee or clean the bathrooms.

In 2017, Public Works Director Kevin Sheppard described the reasons for closing the visitor center bathrooms.

“We have found that when the restrooms were open, without a park attendant, the facility became a hangout for folks to use as a washroom and an area to use illegal substances. This, in turn, would frighten some of the volunteers staffing the information area and/or other people that may want to utilize the facility,” Sheppard said.

The portables were a short-term solution to a greater problem, which was the cost of upgrading the visitor center facilities, in need of costly repairs. Since then, a police substation has been added to the visitor’s center, and the portable toilets mainly serve the marginalized homeless – those who live outside rather than in designated shelters.

But there are other things that have changed – COVID-19 caused a reduction in the number of shelter beds in order to comply with state-mandated social distancing, and in the past year the city’s homeless population has surged – so much so that even at capacity, there wouldn’t be enough beds them to go around. And then there is the lack of transitional and affordable housing, which keeps people in shelters much longer than they should be.

Safety Concerns

Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long confirmed Thursday that the potties had been removed due to ongoing safety concerns.

A review of this week’s police call logs indicates there were 25 calls for service at Veterans Park between May 21 and 27, ranging from “check condition” and “fight” to theft, unwanted subject, hot spot patrol and 15 “special attention” calls.

While none of the calls directly involve the toilets, it’s all related.

“One of the safety concerns is we need a police detail there 24/7 to make sure nobody’s overdosing. I drove by there yesterday when EMTs were there to attend to someone. And while I can’t specify what the safety concerns are that led Chief Aldenberg to the decision to remove them, it’s a lot of things,” Long said.

He and other aldermen have expressed concerns about quality of life issues, and Long says he’s been communicating with Aldenberg toward tightening up processes and procedures that can reduce crime and the sense that a place like Veterans Park is no longer safe or welcoming for the general public.

“Unfortunately we do something humanely, like put in bathrooms for the homeless, and unfortunately it attracts an element of the homeless that create problems.  It’s not all the homeless, but just like any other faction of the population that has a bad element, so do the homeless. And they are giving all the homeless a bad rap,” he said.

The park has become a gathering place for what he figures are “the 10 percent” of the homeless who have their reasons for not wanting to go to a shelter, Long said.

“They end up having fights among one another, territorial stuff, or selling drugs or shooting up in the bathrooms and then falling on the ground.  This is what creates an added burden to the city, when we’re trying to do the right thing by providing services,” Long said.

All of that creates an unsavory environment at a park dedicated to veterans, particularly as Memorial Day weekend approaches. It’s not fair to the city at large, said Long.

“I think there’s an intention of having a service there on Monday, so you’re going to have people going down there to commemorate our veterans and they have to go through this? The ones causing the problems are those who don’t want anyone telling them what to do,” Long says. “I get that, believe me. But this can’t go on as it is.”

What brought Long to the park on Wednesday was to find out more from parks and recreation personnel about the bathroom situation.

“I was told the firm hired to clean them hasn’t been consistent, but when you think about what it is they’re dealing with, it’s not just human waste – likely there is hazardous waste being tossed in those bathrooms, and that’s not what they signed up for, so I can understand that,” Long said.

Although he was initially a proponent of portable toilets, he’s since shifted his thinking to a larger solution. He says he’s reminded of something he learned from former Police Chief David Mara, when there was a movement to remove benches from the park to keep the homeless from sleeping on them.

“He was adamantly against removing them. He said to me that you should never legislate on changing something because of what the homeless are doing that you don’t like; they’re the ones that need to change,” Long said. “It’s up to us to come up with a plan to make sure everyone has a shot at a better life.”

Long-term solutions

He favors creating a single location where the unsheltered can be housed with mental health and outreach services on the site. He has proposed a pilot program using something called Pallet pods to test out his theory.

“We need to break down that demographic and deal with them individually based on their needs – who’s bipolar, who has deeper psychotic issues, let’s get them the medication they need and help stabilize them. How many just drink occasionally or smoke pot, and just need help getting independent and back on their feet? Let’s get them into some housing they can afford, and get them working,” he said.

While there may be a lingering few who will continue to live rough by choice, the majority of those highly-visible homeless in parks or embedded on Elm Street sidewalks are the ones Long believes are the toughest cases, in need of the most individual help. Addiction, undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues, those who have no family connections – they could use one-on-one guidance from someone who can see them through.

“These are human beings. I pat Manchester on the back for even having the services we do, but we just don’t have enough outreach, enough people to figure out individually how to move people from the situation they’re in, to a better one,” Long said.

He has confidence in the city’s newest hire, Director of Homeless Initiatives Schonna Green, and believes she’s going to help pull together all the loose ends that have been left dangling for lack of funding, housing and the will to change things; he hopes she can rally the community at large to coalesce around a complicated issue in need of solving.

“She’s been in these trenches for 25 years and she gets it,” Long says.

Green, who officially started in the grant-funded position on April 18 says the city is grappling with a humanitarian issue that is much greater than just Manchester. She says pieces of the puzzle are beginning to fit into place. The city just put out RFPs seeking developers to come to the table. And there are plans in the works for the city to create its own affordable housing trust so that it can address the needs of residents on its own terms.

Although she’s still getting her bearings, Green is all in.

“With just a little more time we’ll be ready to present a plan that together we all approve of, one we can execute successfully,” Green said. Right now we have to do better and we can do better – and we will do better.”

She says she’s had a tremendous outpouring from individuals, businesses, non-profits and fellow city employees, and that is what bolsters her optimism that there is a way forward, for long-term solutions.

“Citizens and groups who are concerned about the homeless issue have called and spoken to me. They’re ready and waiting for marching orders, and soon we’ll be presenting something that we’re able to deliver on, something that can have real impact in the correct way, with an entry process and an exit process and, ultimately, a reward because we did it right,” Green says. 

“This city belongs to all of us and this problem belongs to all of us and together we can get this done. But we’ll need the support of businesses, banks, churches – there’s something for all of us to do to eradicate an issue that’s the most humanitarian issue facing America right now,” Green said. 

“The primary focus in our city is housing for all people of all incomes, and we’re looking at all of it. That is something the mayor is pushing for because it’s not just about the homeless. We have people in our city working two or three jobs to keep the lights on, or who need food because they’re paying too much rent,” Green said. “Our goal is to make the highest and best use of whatever resources we have and put it all toward a plan that can succeed, and then be successful in executing that plan.”


About this Author

Nathan Graziano

Nathan Graziano lives in Manchester with his wife and kids. He's the author of nine collections of fiction and poetry. His most recent book, Born on Good Friday was published by Roadside Press in 2023. He's a high school teacher and freelance writer, and in his free time, he writes bios about himself in the third person. For more information, visit his website: