Back to Bathrooms for Homeless DC Residents

The People for Fairness Coalition, an advocacy organization for homeless District of Columbia residents, is campaigning for public restrooms in the downtown area.

A spokesperson says they’re not only for the homeless. True enough. Tourists, shoppers, street vendors and people betwixt business meetings could benefit too. But there’s a difference.

I recall a time when I was near a small park where homeless people hang out and felt an urgent need to relieve myself. So I walked into a hotel and strolled through the lobby to the women’s room. Nobody said boo.

I’ve also on occasion ducked into a restaurant. Again, no one working there looked at me askance. This would hardly have been the case if I’d been wearing a tattered sweater and lugging bundles of all the belongings I still had.

Having clean, conveniently located public bathrooms anyone can use at any time seems to me merely the mark of a civilized city.

Those of us fortunate enough to have traveled abroad know they’re easy to find in Paris and in at least parts of other cities American tourists are likely to visit. Several U.S. cities now have them too, though not necessarily enough or open long enough.

Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human — an international advocacy group cleverly named to produce the acronym PHLUSH — argues that “toilet availability is a human right,” citing the broad right to sanitation the United Nations formally declared in 2010.

PHLUSH cites practical benefits too — and not only for health. Public toilets, it says, support downtown revitalization because people will stroll, window shop, etc. when they know they can find them. And businesses gain a positive imagine when they’re in neighborhoods that make a good first impression.

Such talking points could interest the downtown BID, which has invested in efforts to move homeless people off the streets — one of those cases where self-interest and public interest mesh.

The talking points (or something like) seem already to have influenced Councilmember Vincent Orange, since he’s introduced a bill to launch and evaluate a “mobile hygiene unit” — a bus converted to a bathroom with showers, as well as toilets.

We know he’s live to local business interests — his business, so to speak, as chair of the Business, Consumer Affairs and Regulatory Committee.

PFFC doesn’t seem much concerned about the motives. Nor should it be, if buses traveling around the city would meet the need they’re concerned with.

They wouldn’t, so far as I can see, do anything for homeless people — or for tourists, shoppers, etc. — who just need a toilet PDQ. And the pilot Councilmember Orange proposes would fund only one bus. No prospects of more until the two-year pilot ends.

Honolulu, which perhaps inspired the mobile unit solution, will soon have a fleet, including some buses with sleeping quarters. San Francisco, another model, also apparently has multiple buses.

PFFC members have thus far delivered mixed messages about the Orange bill. One says it’s “a great idea” — at least in part because of the showers. Another would prefer a restroom with a permanent location.

We shouldn’t let the forest get lost in these trees. The fact that PFFC is advocating for public restrooms speaks to a larger problem homeless people have in the District — and most other cities, I gather.

Shelters for those who don’t have children with them — those commonly termed single individuals, though they may be family members — generally insist that residents leave first thing in the morning and won’t let them back in before dinnertime or thereabouts.

So they wander the streets or take refuge in a McDonald’s, until they’re kicked out, or in a public library, if District rules don’t exclude them, e.g., by banning large bags. One way or the other, they’re on the streets a goodly part of the day — if for no other reason than to get to a shelter and stand in line because otherwise they’ll have no bed for the night.

No place then to pee, except in an alley or behind a bush, assuming they can persuade another homeless person to let them back in line afterwards. But we’ve got laws against heeding the call of nature in a public place — as indeed do a great many cities.

They don’t affect only homeless singles who rely on shelters, of course. Some, as I (and others) have written before, won’t go to a shelter. Last January’s one-night count found 544 on the streets or some other place “not meant for human habitation.”

Both they and the sheltered singles have no assured, 24-hour home base. This poses high risks to their mental and/or physical health, even if they’re not (yet) officially disabled. It makes finding — and keeping — a job extraordinarily difficult, as the story I recently recounted shows.

Kurt Runge, the Advocacy Director at Miriam’s Kitchen, says the mobile unit plan “could help address some very important basic needs in the short term.” But “[p]eople need a home of their own to take care of their personal needs.”

Housing surely is, as he says, “the solution to homelessness.” And it’s one the District should make a top priority in the upcoming budget cycle and beyond. But as the Executive Director of the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness has said, “we will always need shelter.”

So I would hope that this upsurge of interest in public bathrooms doesn’t divert attention from policies that make them a more pressing need than for anyone else in our community.

One Response to Back to Bathrooms for Homeless DC Residents

  1. Thank you, Kathryn, for taking up the restroom issues that have plagued our nation’s capital for years. Policy advocacy is needed at many levels from the BID to the National Park Service: I hope you can help show where and how to apply it. It’s a challenge to insert issues we don’t talk about and haven’t much considered into public discussion, much less come up with a sound strategy for action.

    GottaGoOttawa is making good and strategic progress in their fight for public washrooms in Canada’s capital. http://ottawapublictoilets.ca/2016/01/12/update-january-2016/ Note they’re clear about fighting for toilets for everybody. As for mobile units, they clearly target specific populations, be they unhoused residents of cities or film stars on location. Still, Doniece Sandoval has had brilliant success deploying Lava Mae busses on the same streets where luxurious and controversial private commuter busses serve IT professionals. These might work in San Francisco but I’d like to see Washington DC take a more comprehensive and equitable approach: integrate safe public toilet design into the shared urban space and the built environment.

    There are many ways to do this. PHLUSH has documented all the sound policy and practice we’ve observed to date in our Public Toilet Advocacy Toolkit. Thank you for highlighting ‘Why Public Toilets? We’d be honored to have you comment further on our recommendations and continue to explore the need of all people to meet the shared biological need “to go.”

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