Nowhere to “Go”:
D.C.’s growing need for 24/7 public restrooms
“There used to be a bathroom there,” Jeff Watson said, pointing to where P Street and Dupont Circle meet. In between panhandling, he added, “At night, a lot of people used to hang out there and smoke weed and guys would also do ‘stuff.’”
Watson is referring to “comfort stations,” public restrooms that were once available throughout D.C. in places such as Franklin Park and Dupont Circle. But the District started closing down the stations during the 1950s for reasons including economic hardships and new laws requiring restaurants and hotels to provide restrooms. At that time, The Washington Post reported news such as Assistant U.S. Attorney Warren Wilson declaring comfort stations to be “cesspools of perversion” in 1950 and “District Balks Sex Deviates by Closing 2 Comfort Stations” in 1951. By the turn of the millennium, “comfort station” had become an outdated term and building itself.
“But we need public restrooms” is the growing cry among advocates, public officials, visitors and citizens alike. The People for Fairness Coalition’s Downtown D.C. Public Restroom Committee has been championing the need for clean, safe, accessible and available public restrooms. In 2015, the group carried out an inventory of downtown D.C. and made a striking conclusion: there are only three public 24/7 restrooms available in all of the District (Union Station, Jefferson Memorial and Lincoln Memorial). A year later, they conducted a follow-up inventory that observed discrimination against people lacking stable housing.
To date, the committee’s inventories have been the only investigations done regarding public restroom availability in the city. In response, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau and her staff drafted and introduced a bill that would establish a task force to plan how and where D.C. could install public restrooms.
Janet Sharp, a committee member, described the fine details PFFC examined in the first inventory: “We weren’t just going in and going out. We looked at everything — is the floor clean, are the lights bright enough, is the seat wobbly, does the lock work — everything.” Sharp also underlined the lack of signage outside of the immediate area: “If you’re new or don’t know the city, you won’t even be able to find these few bathrooms.”
They selected five areas — Gallery Place, Georgetown, Dupont Circle, the K Street Corridor and Columbia Heights — that fit two criteria: heavy foot traffic and large concentrations of individuals lacking housing. The committee found that out of the 85 establishments they visited, 42 allowed them to use the restroom.
In the follow-up inventory, they revisited the 42 facilities that allowed them to use the restroom in the prior year. PFFC mentor and advisor Marcia Bernbaum dressed in “nice clothing” while PFFC member Robert Everett dressed in a “large tattered jacket” and walked unevenly. All of the facilities allowed Bernbaum to freely use the restroom. Everett was accompanied to the restroom at two facilities, and four places refused him access altogether.
Ten of those 42 facilities had also placed locks on their restroom doors since the initial inventory. Bernbaum said individual judgement calls, rather than overarching company policies, ultimately determined the outcome:
“At one nice restaurant the first receptionist denied Robert,” she said, “but the second time it was a different person and she let him in.”
John McDermott, committee member and PFFC co-founder, elaborated on how the lack of public restrooms is especially a problem for people experiencing homelessness,
“Those who look homeless often get turned away…[it] might not be such a problem if you look nice, you can ask any place,” she said, “but for people who don’t look nice…where would they go? Where do those people go when they need to use the bathroom?”
In a cup, answered Jim Mitchell from across the city. Albeit, he added, in an emergency. Mitchell has been experiencing homelessness in D.C. for about ten years. From his sleeping bag he pointed to the businesses that allow him to use the restroom. As for the night?
“I try to drain it out,” Mitchell said, explaining that he stops drinking anything toward the evening. He paused to further think about the campaign for public restrooms. “It’s a good idea,” he said, “but they have to be set up so that they’re not used for illicit actions. Otherwise, the community will not tolerate it.”
Mitchell also understood the discrimination against homeless individuals that the committee had observed in their study.
“Honestly, some of the homeless just aren’t aware anymore,” Mitchell said, “and I’ve cleaned up after some of them so that someone doesn’t blame me for messing up a bathroom.”
Robert Warren, PFFC’s executive director, spoke similarly at a Street Sense vendor advocacy group meeting.
“It’s true, some of the homeless do mess up the bathrooms and then everyone gets the blame for that,” he said.
“But you don’t know that,” Sheila White countered at the meeting, “I’ve cleaned bathrooms at a government building that requires ID’s to get in — it wasn’t open to the public, and those bathrooms? They were just as filthy.”
The committee is continuing to lobby D.C. Council and other organizations with the results of their inventories. They refer to possible solutions such as the Portland Loo; self-cleaning toilets like ones in San Francisco; and other cities’ models of incentivizing businesses to make their restrooms public. Bernbaum stressed that the locations of the restrooms and community support will be critical in maintaining both safety and availability, noting safety issues faced in other cities such as increased crime inside the restrooms.
A new committee member brought the discussion back to the greater safety issue: D.C.’s health problem. Andrew Jones is a part of Asepsis, a non-profit collaborative fighting sanitation crises around the world.
“We have sanitation issues in California, in Flint, and the more and more I delved into it, I realized that we have a problem right here in D.C., the very capital of America,” Jones said.
Jones addressed concerns about how the committee’s focus on public restrooms would take away from their ultimate goal: to end homelessness, to give people homes.
“I understand their concerns full-heartedly,” Jones said, “Tackling homelessness starts with the basics: sanitation. Without that cornerstone of a society, we can’t build upon it.”
The bill has been referred to D.C. Council’s Committee on Health. While an official hearing has yet to be scheduled, the PFFC Downtown D.C. Public Restroom Committee testified at the annual Performance Oversight Hearing for the Committee on Health on February 17. They cited evidence of health problems from holding in bodily waste, hardships for the restroom-challenged — especially seniors and women — and predicted economic boosts from increased foot traffic and less human waste removal.
The committee is reaching out to D.C. communities in order to keep building awareness. They currently have the endorsement of the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions of Foggy Bottom and Dupont Circle, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and most recently the Potomac Communications Group.
The bill was co-introduced by Councilmembers Grosso, Silverman, White, Allen and Bonds.
“When Councilmember Nadeau told me she wanted to establish a Public Restrooms Task Force, I wanted to add my support,” At-Large Councilmember Robert White Jr. wrote in an e-mail to Street Sense. “It’s a challenge for our homeless and disabled residents, not to forget about our tourists, to find public restrooms. When a homeless person in desperate need of a restroom sees a sign in a business that reads ‘restrooms for patrons only,’ it’s a tough daily reminder of how much we need more public restrooms.”
Awareness of the bill is growing, but Warren reminded the advocacy group of another focus.
“We want to really call out to the community and not always put pressure on the government,” she said. “The government will do what the people need. We’ve got to mobilize — it’s the people, people, people.”