I’m no scientist, but one thing I know for certain is that all of the nearly 8 billion of us on this planet have to relieve ourselves somehow.
But you wouldn’t think this is a basic biological fact if you tried to find and use a public restroom in Seattle and many other U.S. cities.
Access to public toilets in the U.S. was not great in the decades before the pandemic, after a 1970s campaign to end pay toilets created the unintended consequence of leaving few at all. In recent years, Starbucks became a key de facto public bathroom. But when COVID-19 hit, private businesses shut their doors and along with them, the bathrooms.
Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said they estimated the city lost access to thousands of restrooms when the pandemic hit.
This affects not just people experiencing homelessness — though they face the most acute need — but also delivery drivers, bus drivers, outreach workers, harried parents and any human who needs to use a bathroom when they are out and about.
Eisinger said when the pandemic began, she told the city that if the city didn’t open its publicly owned bathroom facilities, they would be facing a hepatitis outbreak along with a COVID-19 outbreak. “Within a week, there was a hepatitis outbreak,” Eisinger said. “It’s not hard to predict because that is what happens when human beings live in close proximity without access to basic sanitation. Even the Romans knew this.”
The experience of the Mobile Pit Stop program is one illustration of the difficulty in setting up new public bathrooms in the city. Back in 2019, to respond to the lack of public bathroom facilities, nonprofit Real Change launched a campaign called “Everybody Poos.” Their campaign was successful and the city council funded the $1.3 million effort to set up five Mobile Pit Stops, a type of facility established in San Francisco that features a mobile bathroom unit with running water, soap, towels, sharps and dog waste disposal, and critically, staffed by workers as part of a jobs program.
But 2020 came and went and the Mobile Pit Stops have not yet materialized. There are two hygiene centers available, according to the city’s map of public restrooms, but Real Change Advocacy Director Tiffani McCoy, who was a leader of the campaign, said it is not the same thing as the Mobile Pit Stops that were supported by the community and the council.
When I asked the mayor’s office about the status of the Mobile Pit Stops, spokesperson Kamaria Hightower said in an email: “Shortly thereafter the pandemic began, the funds were transferred from Human Services Department (HSD) to Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) to quickly deploy 12 hygiene stations (portable toilets and sinks), accelerating the number of additional resources available for unhoused people. SPU then used these resources to deploy two shower trailers which contain toilets and sinks, in addition to showers.”
According to the Seattle City Auditor’s office in a 2019 report, if you were to apply the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees standard for bathroom access to just the city’s unhoused population, the city would need 224 public bathrooms to serve that population. There are over 700,000 people overall in Seattle as of the latest Census.
Hightower said in an emailed response to the UNHCR figure, that the city has made the following available: “225 bathrooms in parks, 27 bathrooms in libraries, 9 SPU public restroom locations and two public shower trailers (that contain toilets and sinks, in addition to showers). We also have reopened additional indoor city facilities such as Seattle Center and City Hall. The number of locations is not equivalent to the number of toilets, however using the UNHCR number that totals one bathroom per 14.3 unhoused individuals (currently it’s estimated there are 3,738 individuals unhoused in Seattle).”
But as is always the case in tracking the status of bathroom access in Seattle, the devil is in the details. Regarding the number of restrooms actually usable by the public, the city itself said in an email, “It’s important to note that restrooms shown as open could be closed because of maintenance or vandalism.”
That detail is key because the auditor’s report also found that of the six 24-hour restrooms available at the time of their review in 2018, four portable toilets were poorly lit and had no running water and three of the four portable toilets were damaged in ways that affected their usability and one cleaning log indicated the toilet had not been cleaned for 10 days.
One analysis in January by journalist Erica C. Barnett of Publicola — who has tracked the actual availability of city toilet facilities for years — found that, “Of more than 130 restrooms operated directly by the city, and not counting restrooms in library buildings or shelters operated by nonprofit providers, more than 60 are currently closed. Of those, fewer than half have been replaced by what the city euphemistically calls ‘sanicans,’ better known as portable toilets, and only a relative handful of which include a place for people to wash their hands after doing their business.”
Eisinger said the gaps between what is available on paper and what is actually available is part of a larger problem.
“So for the city to have patted itself on the back, by standing up 10 or 15 [toilets], under duress,” she said, “and then publishing lists — which repeatedly included things like programs that they may have put city dollars into, but that are not open to the general public, not even the general public who’s experiencing homelessness — is really an attempt, I think, to cover up the fact that this is a public shame.”
Though the city numbers sound rosy, any casual observer walking downtown can see firsthand we have a huge public health, human dignity and quality-of-life problem in our city when it comes to open defecation, urination and lack of sufficient toilet facilities.
We can either pay upfront to meet a fundamental human need or we can pay millions to clean up after our denial and again avoid addressing an easily solvable problem.