If you tried to use a public restroom along Long Beach’s coastline recently, odds weren’t bad that you’d find someone holed up inside.

The city locks its 10 beach restroom buildings each night, but the doors haven’t been all that sturdy, and they opened inward, meaning they could be broken open with a good solid kick, according to Todd Leland, manager of the city’s marine bureau.

The prospect of taking cover in a bathroom proved to be tempting for some of the estimated 2,455 people living on the street in Long Beach, where shelter beds are perenially at or near capacity.

“Basically what happens is people bash into the restrooms and stay barricaded, locking themselves in,” Leland said.

At any given time, Leland estimated, about a third of the available restrooms were taken over by someone using them in an unauthorized way.

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Now, Long Beach is trying to change that. In recent months, Leland’s bureau has been replacing restroom doors with sturdier metal ones, and — crucially — the jams are being reversed, so the doors swing outward. They’re about halfway done so far, he said.

Most restrooms now also have a soundtrack intended to discourage people from camping out. Workers have installed stereos and speakers at six facilities that were most frequently taken over.

They now blare classical music, something that Leland said “promotes turnover and moving people along.”

It’s an old tactic. Other cities — such as Los Angeles — and businesses like 7-Eleven have experimented for years with using loud music as a cheap way to deter homeless people from congregating at subway stations or on the sidewalk.

In this case, Leland said he thinks it’s working.

Since beginning to roll out the new doors and music, most restrooms are clear most of the time, he said.

But just because people aren’t taking over the bathrooms doesn’t mean they’ve found somewhere else to go, according to longtime homeless advocate Christine Barry.

A bicyclist loops around the public beach restroom where classical music is now being played over speakers in Long Beach, Monday, May 13, 2024. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Outside the Junipero Beach restrooms, which had chronic problems with barricaded doors, several people were sleeping Monday just a few dozen yards away from the building.

Barry said it’s been “impossible” to get into a shelter in Long Beach recently, forcing people to take refuge wherever they could.

“It’s not safe at night,” she said. “Some of the people barricading themselves in the bathroom are women trying to stay safe.”

Leland said the goal is to make sure everyone has access to the restrooms so they can be used in the way they’re intended.

So far, the music and doors have been a cost-effective solution, he said. The City Council authorized up to $550,000 for the door replacements and, according to Leland, the stereo systems only cost about $180 each.

A restroom is an important resource for people living homeless in Long Beach, Leland said, but “it has to be available for all members of the public.”

Jeremiah Dobruck is managing editor of the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @jeremiahdobruck on Twitter.