credit: Madden Fabrication

After becoming ordained as a Buddhist Monk and living in monasteries abroad for 20 years, George Olivar returned to the U.S. and settled in Washington, D.C., to continue his study of religion.

He chose the District to be near the Library of Congress’ extensive collection of literature on religion and philosophy. He had planned to mostly rely on the pension from his accounting career but could not keep up with the high cost of living in the area and soon found himself without a place to live.

Now housed, Olivar joined the People For Fairness Coalition four years ago and became a core member of PFFC’s Downtown D.C. Public Restroom Initiative, along with Marcy Bernbaum, John McDermott and Janet Sharp.

Since 2014, the small group of community activists has met weekly and pushed for access to public restrooms in downtown D.C., resulting in a bill introduced by D.C. Council in April 2017 that called for the installation and maintenance of stand-alone public restrooms in downtown D.C. The Public Restroom Facilities Installation and Promotion Act of 2017 has been marked up and is awaiting a vote from the two D.C. Council Committees it was referred to. If not voted into law by the D.C. Committee of the Whole in December, it will have to be reintroduced in 2019.

[Read more: D.C. Council  bathroom bill revised to expedite action

“Washington doesn’t have a public restroom safe and clean for all, as in other countries — in Europe, Asia, Australia, England, with many public restrooms open 24/7.” Olivar said. “Among my friends who are housing unstable, some say it is a good idea for all people and some say, ‘You are crazy, the government does not care for us.’”

The number of businesses closing their bathroom doors to non-customers has increased over the last few years, according to the Public Restroom Initiative. Their research shows there are only two public bathrooms open 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the District. The team reported that in 2015, 43 of the 85 businesses they visited allowed individuals who were not customers to use their restrooms. In 2016, the number had dropped to 28. By 2017, only 11 businesses permitted individuals who weren’t customers to use their restrooms.

[Read more: D.C. Council examines city’s bathroom shortage]

When D.C. Council returned from summer recess in September, the People For Fairness Coalition, along with Greater Greater Washington, launched an online petition urging D.C. Council to pass the bill. As Street Sense went to press, the petition had 349 signatures. The coalition had previously circulated a similar petition that obtained more than 1,000 signatures in 2015 before the public restroom legislation was introduced.

“Very rarely have I come across an organization like PFFC that has done the intense amount of research of organizing to work on their pitch, work on their materials,” said David Whitehead, housing program organizer for Greater Greater Washington. They are the experts on this issue.”

Sharp said she has given more than 40 presentations over the last several years, advocating for the bill and seeking buy-in from organizations, officials and community members. She had never given a presentation before working on the restroom initiative. As the members of PFFC  fanned out across D.C. neighborhoods to share their research and raise awareness, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions started to endorse the bill. Thirteen ANCs have submitted resolutions to the D.C. Council supporting the legislation.

In the last year, the team has also distributed thousands of four-paneled cards that list when and where restrooms are open to the public, as well as whether bags are allowed inside.

“I’m learning a lot about myself, that if I put my mind to it, I can do anything,” McDermott said. “Even though I’m semi-handicapped, I can get out there and do what I gotta do to get this bill passed. We’re learning from other advocates, who are helping us as much [as] they can.”

The group was inspired by the Community Toilet Scheme that is used in London and many other cities, through which the government incentivizes local businesses to open their restrooms to the public. Those businesses then place a decal on their shop window to inform the public that they have restrooms available.

Some establishments do offer bathroom access upon request, such as the Panera Bread near Metro Center station.

“Whenever you step in the door you are a customer,” said Brenton Auclair, a retail associate for Panera. “They’re open to use the restroom as long as they let us know. We do get a lot of homeless people, we treat them like our customers, we’re all human.” Auclair added that they lock the door because it is important for them to monitor the restroom for safety reasons, but staff will give anyone the code upon request.

When the manager of an Au Bon Pain with similar key-code locks on their restroom doors was asked about their policy for public access, she said her boss would not allow her to comment.

“Lack of access to public restroom facilities is an issue that affects many residents,” Councilmember Brianne Nadeau said in a statement, “but its effects are particularly felt by the homeless and people with unique restroom needs such as pregnant women, people with disabilities and the elderly. Everyone deserves a safe, clean place to use the restroom.”

This range was demonstrated by some of the people who left comments  with their petition signature: a local father with two young children, a commuter who works in the city, a local woman who frequently works outdoors, a non-resident who frequently visits the city, and a local woman whose mother has an injury from childbirth that causes incontinence.

The bathroom bill is moving through both the Transportation and the Environment Committee and the Health Committee now, according to Nadeau. She is hopeful the legislation will be voted through this session and said she will re-introduce the bill during the next session if necessary.

“The number one problem is inertia,” Whitehead said. “It gets stuck, it’s not [the Council’s] priority.”

He suggested voters may not feel heard by the council after the June primary election where every incumbent retained their seat and the ballot initiative voters approved to remove the minimum wage exemption for tipped workers was repealed.

“I think that this is an opportunity to chip away at this narrative,” Whitehead said. “As our petition has shown, it’s more than just a niche homelessness issue.”