The first time she was forced to go to the bathroom in public, Maggie Slighte was in Portland, standing in the dark at the end of the city’s light rail line, after service ended.
She made a bed with her clothes and her backpack, and looked for a bathroom — but none of Portland’s light rail stations have public bathrooms. So instead, Slighte crouched down behind a wall and relieved herself over a grate. She cried when she crawled into bed.
“Probably one of the most humiliating times of my life,” Slighte said, “but I knew I was homeless right then.”
Although Slighte has been housed in Olympia for the last two years, she’s experienced similar problems in Seattle when she comes up for her appointments at Harborview Medical Center. Slighte is now in a wheelchair and has interstitial cystitis, a chronic, painful bladder condition resulting in frequent and urgent urination. Once she drove to Seattle in an adult diaper to avoid issues.
“My heart starts to race, and my palms start to sweat when I think about finding a public restroom in Seattle,” Slighte said. “I know I can find one in (the University of Washington campus), I know I can find one in Harborview, but between those two?”
A shortage of public bathrooms in Seattle, paired with a rising tide of people living outside, has created a wave of waste: This year so far, Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) cleaners have responded to 6,456 reports of human feces just in the retail core of downtown, which already exceeds the entirety of incidents last year.
Members of Seattle City Council have moved on a solution, allocating almost $1.3 million in next year’s proposed city budget to buy and staff five “mobile bathroom facilities.” Don’t imagine port-a-potties: These would be bathrooms on wheels, with handwashing stations, needle disposal, and a staff person to clean them and make sure no one sleeps or uses drugs inside.
In a city where discussions around homelessness became very divisive in the run-up to the 2019 city council elections, and the Board of Health declared homelessness a public health disaster over a year ago, advocates for the toilets hoped this budget item would unite people on both sides of the issue.
“Seattle is really polarized around homelessness — it seems like public hygiene … would be something everyone could agree on,” said Tim Harris, founder of the street newspaper Real Change, whose advocacy arm has led the “Everybody Poos” campaign in the last few months. They’ve placed port-a-potties outside Seattle City Hall, circulated pictures of Pearl Jam’s guitarist, Stone Gossard, holding a balloon shaped like the poop emoji, and handed out mini-books of the children’s classic ‘Everyone Poops.’
“This is where we can meet in the middle, right? These are the areas where people agree,” said Councilmember Lisa Herbold, the item’s sponsor.
Homeless hygiene has been a point of tension at city hall in the past: In 2017, the city’s Human Services Department reduced funding for hygiene and toilet facilities when it rebid contracts to services providers, only to have the city council later redirect money to restore it.
Herbold and Harris were inspired by a review from the city auditor last year advising expansion of the number of city-funded public restrooms. The auditor found only six restrooms in Seattle open at all hours, none of which were placed in the city’s eastern stretch from University District down to the south edge. Even in the ones that were open, there were missing soap dispensers, parts of syringes in the toilets, broken lights and broken rails intended to assist the disabled.
The idea of city-funded public restrooms comes from San Francisco, where the city installed three mobile bathrooms, which they dub pit stops, in the Tenderloin neighborhood in 2014, after neighborhood middle schoolers were so fed up with navigating human waste on their walk to school that they made a plea to the city. Since then, there was a 62% reduction in complaints of human waste, when comparing the six months before their installation to the last six months.
L.A., Miami and Denver have since launched similar programs, and there’s evidence in many of these cities the public toilets have been heavily used by homeless and housed people. But it’s unclear how much they help the overall problem: In San Francisco, complaints of human waste in public hit an all-time high in 2018.
Rachel Gordon, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Public Works, attributes the rise in complaints to a more accessible reporting system in the last few years. San Francisco citizens can report things like human waste to the city via an app, a website or even Twitter.
Though the data isn’t clear that mobile bathrooms bring an entire city’s numbers down, there hasn’t been organized resistance to this budget item in Seattle — just “crickets” from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office and the Downtown Seattle Association, which represents businesses in the city’s urban core, said Harris, who was hoping both offices would come out in support of the proposal.
“Things are so polarized, people are… more reluctant to collaborate across the aisle,” Harris said.
When The Seattle Times contacted both of those offices, however, they expressed support. The Downtown Seattle Association’s Dave Willard, vice president of Clean and Safe Operations, said more public toilets would help, and that the association has been talking about these issues for quite a while.
A spokesperson for her office said the mayor supports the budget item, and Stephanie Formas, the mayor’s chief of staff, pointed out that this is one of 182 different budget additions this year, many of which the mayor supports but hasn’t commented on publicly.
City council will vote on approving the budget Monday.