When someone needs a toilet but doesn’t have a home: building support for public toilets

July 15, 2017

This post is by PHLUSH board member Kyle Earlywine. He also runs his own toilet business and blog. He is a passionate advocate for dignified sanitation for those living without homes.

Why do homeless people need toilets? For most people, access to a toilet is a given. Even if your community lacks restroom access, there is still a toilet at home. Yet those without housing are reduced to using toilets at retail establishments or other facilities open to the public (at best). When an area lacks publicly available restrooms, these individuals must either commute long distances to the nearest public facility or use the street.

“Using the street as a restroom is dehumanizing,” says Anne Rios, the director for the San Diego based non-profit group Think Dignity. In an interview last year, Rios noted there are only three public restrooms open in downtown San Diego and almost 5,000 homeless in the area forcing many of the homeless to use the street as their toilet. As if the humiliation were not bad enough, the act is illegal in all 50 states! San Diego may have it especially bad, but there are many advocates who recognize the same lack of restroom access for homeless in their own cities.

PHLUSH is one such example as the organization was named after the link between adequate access to sanitation and dignity (PHLUSH – Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human). While PHLUSH is passionate about improving restroom access to benefit the homeless, we recommend in our Public Toilet Advocacy Toolkit to avoid framing the issue as purely a homeless one saying that doing so “is not sufficiently broad or inclusive.”

The People for Fairness Coalition is a homeless advocacy group that has used this advice and made building broad support its chief strategy to getting better restroom access. The Coalition has found that dialoguing with different stakeholder groups and educating them on the benefits pertinent to those groups will help build the support needed for a public restroom project. These different stakeholders have motivations that at times can seem counter to one another but often times the installation of a public restroom can serve all stakeholders assuming all legitimate concerns are addressed.

Photo Courtesy: Think Dignity

Photo Courtesy: Think Dignity

Consider the common example of bars and restaurants located close to an area with a visible homeless population. Some of these establishments worry the presence of homeless individuals may discourage customers from entering the establishment. This worry could lead a business to object to a public restroom if the location is too close or could potentially increase the homeless presence. This may seem like an offensive objection for those primarily concerned with human dignity, but these businesses are not necessarily anti-homeless. They can potentially become supportive of the restroom if the proposed location is close enough to serve people in the area but far enough away to not negatively impact traffic to the business.

Even if a stakeholder is against public expenditures and not concerned for the people needing them, there is still an obvious consequence that results from a lack of restroom access. People are going to eventually relieve themselves even if they have to do it on the sidewalk. Having human waste on the sidewalks is everyone’s problem, especially local businesses and residents. Even if one does not live in that neighborhood, the city will eventually need to clean up the mess and use public funds to do so.

This is an issue that will get resolved one way or another so it’s important to identify the most ideal solution for the community. Some cities pay local businesses to provide their restrooms to the public; other cities install public restrooms. If there is a concern about criminal activity taking place in the restroom, the most ideal option will probably be something like the Portland Loo, but there are other solutions cities have also found satisfactory.

Whether it is concern for people’s dignity, concern for people’s businesses, or concern for tax dollars, everyone has a reason to want the homeless to have adequate access to restroom facilities. It’s an issue that cannot be avoided or ignored by any segment of society for both practical and moral reasons. There is no universal solution to solving the problem, but there is also an abundance of good options to consider. The only option that shouldn’t be considered is doing nothing.

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Our Mission Through education and advocacy, PHLUSH helps local governments and citizen groups to provide equitable public restroom availability and to prepare for a pipe-breaking seismic event with appropriate ecological toilet systems.

Our Vision Toilet availability is a human right and well-designed sanitation systems restore health to our cities, our waters and our soils.

Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human (PHLUSH) was founded in Portland, Oregon and today collaborates with groups across North America.

PHLUSH is a member of the World Toilet Organization and a partner in the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance.

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