Seattle will reopen five library bathrooms to better meet some of the hygiene needs of the more than 3,500 people living unsheltered in the city during the coronavirus pandemic, the city announced Tuesday afternoon.
Restrooms at the Ballard, Capitol Hill, Beacon Hill, University and Central Library branches will be open for public use between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day. The Ballard, University Beacon Hill branches will open Thursday, and the other locations will reopen Monday, according to the city. No services other than the restrooms at the libraries will be made available.
“Equity is an important value to the Library and I believe we have an opportunity to support our most vulnerable neighbors by providing restroom access during the COVID-19 crisis,” Chief Librarian Marcellus Turner said in a statement.
Since restaurants and coffee shops shuttered in mid-March, people living outside in Seattle have seen some of the few bathrooms accessible to them disappear. Even before the pandemic, advocates and the city auditor’s office had long argued that hygiene services available to homeless people outside were insufficient.
The city started setting up mobile restrooms and handwashing stations in late March, weeks after other West Coast cities with large unsheltered homeless populations started deploying the same strategy. In December, the city set aside nearly $1.3 million for the purchase of mobile pit stops — hygiene stations with bathrooms, sinks, sharps containers and pet waste receptacles — but they had not been obtained at the outset of the coronavirus outbreak.
“The CDC guidelines are clear: People need access to running water, soap and toilets,” Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness executive director Alison Eisinger told The Seattle Times on April 10. “Porta Potties and handwashing stations are a part, but only a part, of what any municipality needs to do to respond in general as well as in a crisis.”
To date, Seattle has set up 26 new portable bathrooms and 12 sinks. The city also has kept four community centers open for people to access showers and maintained more than 100 park restrooms for public use.
“We are living through an unprecedented time and over the past weeks we have worked to aggressively stand up resources to support our unsheltered neighbors,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement announcing the library reopenings. “Our city employees are supportive, taking on positions in new shelter spaces, childcare facilities, food delivery and more.”
At least one library employee, who asked to remain anonymous because she wasn’t authorized to speak about the plan, said she was concerned about the city’s ability to keep the library restrooms safe and clean for staffers and patrons alike.
“We understand the need for hygiene facilities for people without access to that right now,” the employee said. “But they didn’t think this through. It won’t be safe for the staff or the people who are going to be using the facilities. We won’t be able to sanitize between each use.”
Mayoral spokesperson Kamaria Hightower said custodial staff will deep-clean the facilities overnight and clean “touch points” – including toilet seats, sinks and door handles – throughout the day. Staffing levels were decided based on the fewest people necessary to maintain the facilities, Hightower said.
“As always, employee safety is at the forefront of our concerns as we implement new initiatives,” Hightower said. “All involved will have personal protective equipment as necessary.”
Advocates for the city and county’s homeless community have been asking the city in the past month to reopen some of its buildings to allow people use of city restrooms.
The Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness recommends “everybody in the city be within a half a mile or less of a working toilet and a way to wash their hands,” Eisinger said.
The city has faced challenges keeping the new hygiene facilities clean and preventing theft of hand sanitizer, and has cited cost as a barrier to opening more mobile hygiene stations.
Seattle Times Project Homeless engagement editor Anna Patrick contributed to this report.