The Public Restroom Problem
A lack of access to basic hygiene is a public health issue
When I was a kid, the Starbucks that now occupies the center of a small shopping square in Whittier was a burger place that required 25 cents to use the bathroom. When asked about it, I was told it was to prevent the bathrooms from being used by “tweakers” — homeless drug addicts who took over restrooms intended for customers. All I knew about drugs back then came from my elementary school “Just Say No” training: drugs were scary things given by terrible adults. So, I was inclined to believe the stories of evil, dirty people who invade our clean bathrooms to ruin them with drugs.
Safety is the reasoning I was given for the charge to use the bathroom. But once I became a homeless 8-year-old and my family had to rely on the generosity of a friend to attend to our basic needs, the attempts to bar people from using the bathrooms in order to prevent the occasional crime didn’t add up as much. Couldn’t the facilities be lightly monitored while still providing those in need with access?
I was one of the lucky ones that made it out relatively unscathed and didn’t have to suffer the humiliating challenges those without access to bathrooms face many times a day. But many homeless people face a shortage we don’t often think about — public toilets. Most concerning to the general public is the use of natural places as makeshift toilets, by far the most dangerous part of this phenomenon. A 2017 audit found that the more than 1,700 people living on the streets of Los Angeles’s notorious Skid Row have only nine bathrooms available to them between 9 p.m.-6 a.m.
California’s homeless population is conservatively estimated at more than 150,000, a figure that’s likely to grow with the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. On skid rows, people are often forced to add to the squalor and disease of the streets because they can’t get to a restroom. Across the state, thousands more use nearby waterways as substitutes for clean, running water despite Assembly Bill 685, the 2012 state measure declaring that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes. That goal remains out of reach for those who can’t access public bathrooms.
This spells danger for those vulnerable to diseases in our communities and can have an impact on the health of us all. In locations such as the San Diego River and Santa Ana River, the use of waterways as toilets and baths by homeless encampments is suspected as a cause of unusually high amounts of fecal bacteria and pathogens that can continue to multiply among the public. According to Friends of the LA River, there are no public bathrooms or water fountains along the Los Angeles River, though as of 2017 approximately 700–800 homeless living aside the river.
This is how public health disasters such as the 2017 Hepatitis A outbreak happen. Many point to the lack of public restrooms and hygiene available to homeless populations as the main reason a disease that is normally limited in scope spread rapidly through communities.
In 2018, the Homeless Emergency Assistance Program granted the use of $11 million in general funding to the city of Los Angeles for “…homeless prevention and diversion programs, general homeless services, voluntary storage programs, emergency response, and hygiene services.” This funding could help provide homeless people in Los Angeles sanitary opportunities, especially those on Skid Row.
Another notable initiative trying to do something about the need for clean water and hygiene on the streets of Skid Row is the ReFresh Spot. This is a community-funded and managed site that provides a staffed, regularly cleaned area with toilets, sinks, showers and laundry machines. The center is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is gender-neutral and accessible to those with common physical disabilities.
Although there will be mistakes in managing these projects, in the best-case-scenario projects like these boost morale as well as hygiene by providing an opportunity to clean up before going on job interviews. A little light at the end of the tunnel can be as simple as access to clean water, a toilet and a shower. During the biggest global pandemic in modern history, making basic hygiene available for all, including the homeless, is in everybody’s interests.