Revamp the Pee Tunnel

The “Pee Tunnel” is a daily obstacle for homeless children and families accessing services at Sacramento Loaves & Fishes on foot. At the same time, the street it sits on is the current focus of city officials, who consider it an obstacle to development.

This tunnel is a covered pedestrian walkway on 16th Street just north of C Street known for its long slicks of urine, used hypodermic needles, broken glass, food wrappers and torn clothing. Officials want to change that.

“The City of Sacramento is currently developing a streetscape plan to make the corridor a more inviting place for residents, businesses, customers, and visitors,” reads the text on the city’s webpage. They’re asking for our input in an online survey, which we can take through Tuesday, June 20.

The North 16th Street corridor is set for revitalization and the City of Sacramento is taking ideas from residents. [Photo: City of Sacramento website]

Today, this “corridor” could be the set of a horror movie or a crime scene. It’s not kid-friendly.

Pedestrians aren’t to blame for the state of things. Until now, the city hasn’t paid North 16th much attention, or provided the resources necessary to make the area safe and clean.

People who use this walkway are probably only doing one of a few things: finishing their bike ride to Pipeworks gym, walking home to the Quinn Cottages transitional living community or accessing services at Women’s Empowerment or Loaves & Fishes.

For a family going to Mustard Seed School or breakfast at Maryhouse every morning, there are only a couple of ways to access Loaves & Fishes services on foot. Couch-surfing families can take the light rail to 12th Street and walk down North B Street. Families staying at motels to the north or the Volunteers of America family shelter can walk down Richards Boulevard or Bannon Street. All other kids get to walk the infamous “Pee Tunnel.”

Yes, even the students at Mustard Seed call it that.

The tunnel on North 16th Street is often used as a restroom by people who have nowhere else to relieve themselves. [Photo: Chakira Parsons]

Imagine you are 5 years old, living in a motel, and this is how you have to get to school in the morning. Every day, you walk with your mom, two brothers and baby sister in a stroller, through the Pee Tunnel.

Some families have chosen to skip school and breakfast because they don’t feel comfortable walking through the current “streetscape.” I don’t blame them.

I’m not saying it’s not possible. It can be done every day, but it wears on you.

I’ve taught Kindergarten at Mustard Seed since 2012. I worry about riding my bike to work through broken glass, potholes and puddles of pee. I worry on rainy days when the tunnel is full of people trying to keep their heads dry, how awkward and close-quartered it is to slip through there with a bicycle.

There are also rough sidewalks, no restrooms or trash bins, overgrown weeds and a total lack of shade. This street needs work.

When I’m out with friends and tell people what I do for a living, they often ask how they can help. “There shouldn’t be homeless children in my community, but there are and it makes me sad and angry and I don’t know what to do with that” is the general sentiment.

I tell people to start listening to the way our local government talks about homelessness, listen to the stories of the people experiencing homelessness in our community and start educating others when possible.

Be ready to be an advocate. The opportunities to speak up are infrequent and it gets discouraging. But this survey is a chance to make a difference. The decision the city makes here has the potential to significantly improve the lives of the mothers, daughters, fathers and sons who travel this street.

Here’s what I recommended to the project team:

Obstacles:

The tunnel on North 16th Street is very dark and often difficult for cyclists to ride through. [Photo: Chakira Parsons]

All the obstacles they list are real. I added to the “Other” box that “this street and the pedestrian tunnel are unsafe for children, families and other folks accessing services at Loaves & Fishes.”

I dropped a pin on the tunnel and pointed out:

  • No public bathrooms, so there is always urine in and around the pedestrian tunnel
  • No public waste receptacles, so there is always garbage and broken glass
  • Tunnel walkway is too narrow for strollers and families
  • Tunnel is too dark, there’s no lighting
  • Tunnel always dirty, needs to be pressure washed frequently

Further down on North 16th street:

  • No shade, no shelter from elements for pedestrians along any part of the street

Improvements:

A public restroom like this self-cleaning one in Paris is much needed on North 16th Street. [Photo: Wikipedia]

I think all the proposed improvements are great. I emphasized at every chance the need for two “Other” things that are not listed: bathrooms and waste receptacles.

I dropped more pins around the tunnel and suggested:

  • Tunnel and surrounding walkway needs more frequent pressure washing and attention to overgrown plants
  • Wider, more consistent sidewalks for families and strollers through the tunnel
  • Public art: kid-friendly murals in the tunnels and sculptural installations further down on North 16th Street
  • 24/hr lighting inside the pedestrian tunnel (perhaps solar powered?)
  • Waste receptacles for trash, food waste and recycling, before and after the tunnel
  • Shade trees along the entirety of North 16th Street, to protect pedestrians from the elements (those who are sleeping outside are already exposed to so much)
  • 24/hr public restrooms just past the tunnel; Single-stall, self-cleaning ones, like in Paris (I dropped another pin for 24/hr public restrooms in Muir Park)
  • Low-level planters of sweet-smelling, native, drought-resistant plants like mugwort, yarrow, fennel and sagebrush before and after tunnel walkway (because who knows if the streetscape planners will ever build bathrooms)

I feel an urgency here for all Sacramento community members to participate in this survey because, after Tuesday, the city may not ask for our opinions again.

The questionnaire will take ten minutes. Heck, if you agree with any of my points, cut and paste. I don’t mind.

You can take the survey here.

Sacramento residents have an opportunity to revamp the tunnel on the North 16th Street corridor. [Photo: Chakira Parsons]

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Chakira Parsons on Email
Chakira Parsons
Chakira Parsons is the Kindergarten-2nd grade Montessori teacher and the Lead Teacher at Mustard Seed, a temporary, private, emergency school for children experiencing homelessness. You can find her walking her pitbull around downtown Sacramento.