credit: Annie Albright

At least 18 members of the public testified at a Jan. 10 D.C. Council hearing to support legislation designed to address a lack of clean and accessible public restrooms in the District of Columbia. The outsized impact of bathroom shortages on homeless individuals was a fixture of witness testimonies supporting the bill, but witnesses also stressed the positive effect that increased restroom accessibility would have on tourists, children, joggers, pregnant women, seniors and others. 

“Nature will call,” said Councilmember Charles Allen, “and it will call to everyone.” 

The bill in question would call for the construction of new public restrooms in D.C. and improve access to existing private restrooms. First, it would compel the Department of Public Works to create a multiagency group tasked with selecting sites throughout the city that would benefit most from the installation of public restroom facilities. Second, it would establish the Community Toilet Incentive to encourage private establishments to make their restrooms available to the public in exchange for reimbursement of bathroom maintenance costs.  

The Public Restroom Facilities Installation and Promotion Act of 2017 was introduced in April after studies by the People for Fairness Coalition, a local housing and homelessness advocacy group, claimed that there are only five clean and safe restrooms open to the public during business hours downtown and only two public restrooms open 24/7 in the District.  

This garnered the attention of Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, chair of the Committee on Human Services and co-sponsor of the bill.

[Read more: Bathroom bill revised to expedite action]

PFFC members visited 85 private establishments with restrooms in five D.C. neighborhoods in order to identify how many would allow nonpatrons to use their facilities. In 2015, they found that roughly half did. PFFC repeated the survey in 2016 and 2017, visiting only those facilities that had allowed them to use their restrooms the year before. In 2016 about a third allowed them to use their restrooms and in 2017 only 11 private establishments allowed public access to their restrooms.

In these later inventories, a PFFC member dressed to look stereotypically “housing stable” (nice clothing) or “housing unstable” (large tattered jacket, sock hat, loose slacks, walking looking down and with an uneven gate). The follow-up reports describe instances of bias against the housing-unstable-dressed individuals conducting the study. These included refusing the housing-unstable-dressed person access to a restroom while allowing the more nicely dressed person in, asking them to use a different bathroom than the more nicely dressed person, or allowing them to use the restroom but treating them differently than the more nicely dressed person. According to the report, in two instances employees chose to accompany the unstable-dressed individual to a bathroom with a combination lock and open it for them, while the more nicely dressed individual was simply given the code. 

PFFC’s 2015 report included a member survey of Metro station bathrooms and showed that station managers generally use discretion to determine who to let use the restroom. Most D.C. Metro stations are equipped with restrooms, and Metro’s policy states that restrooms must be made available to customers in case of “an emergency situation, for small children, or for customers who are elderly or physically disabled.” PFFC’s report cites one station manager saying he would not let “grubby people” use the customer restroom at his Metro stop. 

The scarcity of accessible public restrooms takes a particular toll on homeless individuals because they spend lots of time in pedestrian-heavy commercial corridors, where public restrooms are often crowded, and because they can face discrimination when trying to use private restrooms. 

“As the mother of small children, I know how difficult it is for toddlers, who have tiny bladders and little control over when they need to use the facilities,” said Reverend Catriona Laing of the Church of the Epiphany.  

Leonard Greenberger, a partner at Potomac Communications Group, said that as an avid runner he relies on access to public restrooms while training for races. He also has young children, so he knows bathroom access is crucial. 

PFFC sent multiple representatives to the hearing, including Marcia Bernbaum and Janet Sharp. Sharp focused her testimony on the ways in which bathroom scarcities can be less forgiving on women, especially those who are pregnant or menstruating. Bernbaum said that she was testifying in two capacities, as a PFFC representative and as a senior. “When I have to go, I have to go urgently,” she said.  

Phillip Black can empathize. 

He sells the Street Sense Media newspaper outside of Eastern Market. He works long days and often seven days a week. During the day, Black can use the public restrooms inside the Market. He says they are well maintained and clean, but they are not open all the time. The Market is closed at nights and on Mondays. Black said that during the day he might try to use a private restroom, but it is difficult because many of the shops and restaurants on the 7th Street SE drive that includes Eastern Market put combination locks on the restrooms, and those that don’t can have prohibitively long lines, especially during tourist season. But those businesses also close in the evenings.  

Black said that if he had to use the restroom urgently at night, the nearest option would be the public restrooms at Union Station, a little over a mile from his Eastern Market post. When asked whether he’d ever been in that situation, Black chuckled. “If I’m walking [to Union Station], I’d have to use the bathroom while I’m walking,” he said. “By the time I got there I’d be finished!” 

PFFC’s 2015 report found that individuals in four out of the five downtown neighborhoods surveyed would have to walk one to two miles to use a public restroom in the middle of the night. 

What does one do if the nearest restroom is miles away and you have to “go” urgently? According to Black, you make do — you find a cup or an alleyway and conceal yourself as best you can. But that approach can lead to legal trouble.  

Once, after being told that he wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom in a 7-Eleven, Black said he was forced to urinate in an alleyway. A police car pulled up and the officer asked him to come over.  

“I’m like, let me use the bathroom; I’m in the corner and out of the way,” Black recalled in an interview. 

The officer asked him for his name, identification and whether there were any warrants out for him. Black said he got fed up and told the police officer, “Why don’t you go around the corner where they’re selling drugs and make a real arrest?” His attitude and the public urination earned him a night in the 1st District police station.  

That’s not always how it happens. Police officers “are human too,” Black said. “Sometimes, they’ll just say, ‘Go someplace else,’ or ‘Next time, find a bathroom.’” However, the consequences for not finding a place to “go” in time tend to be most severe for the individuals who find themselves in that situation most often. Public urination and defecation are crimes in D.C. punishable by either a $500 fine or a 90-day jail sentence. As Reverend Laing noted in her testimony at the hearing, “Individuals who are homeless are not the only ones subject to fines, but homeless individuals, when caught, cannot pay the fine, and ending up in jail earns them a record that can hurt their prospects for obtaining housing or employment.”  

Homeless individuals face a variety of factors that complicate their need for a restroom. Some may choose not to take vital medication to treat conditions such as high blood pressure or HIV/AIDS because the side effects include increased urination and diarrhea, and they know they will not have access to a bathroom later, according to Dr. Catherine Crosland, director of homeless medical outreach development for Unity Health Care. 

Another common theme among witnesses at the hearing was the indignity of having to resort to nontraditional methods of relieving oneself when there is no other option. Urinating into alleyways, improvised receptacles, makeshift diapers or one’s only pair of clothing is not only a public health hazard but also can be embarrassing and degrading. It can leave traces — messes, odors, stains — that affect how people move through the world. And even if it doesn’t, it can be incredibly demoralizing.  

“There’s nothing like a clean bathroom,” Black said. “It’s one of those things that when you’re not out on the street, you take for granted. Sometimes when I’m home I clean the whole bathroom just to use it, because I want it clean and I want it fresh, I want it to smell like Clorox, Febreze, Lysol … Pine-Sol, that’s the best stuff.” 


Update (02.15.2018)

This article has been updated to reflect that there are only two restrooms open to the public 24 hours per day, seven days a week, in Washington, D.C.  The 2017 PFFC report cited three available restrooms, but new information provided by the group indicates that Union Station has closed access to anyone without a ticket between midnight and 5 a.m. The remaining two restrooms with 24/7 access are at the Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial.