The Costs of Toiletlessness

February 25, 2009
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The economic and social costs of the demise of public restrooms

In the early 1900s American cities acknowledged the need for public toilets and started building facilities that were clean, comfortable and well marked.  By 1940 there were restrooms in all of New York City’s 1,500 parks while the subway had 1,676 toilets and conducted regular inspections. Today there are a mere 78 public toilets in New York’s 468 subway stations.   Sometime after mid century, the public restrooms of the nation’s cities started into a precipitous decline.

Bronze sidewalk sign at Lownsdale Park

Portland, Oregon was no exception.  Many Portlanders have childhood memories of downtown restrooms such as the one in Pioneer Courthouse Square. They were used by everyone and staffed by friendly attendants, who also received tips. “You’d get done, they’d hand you a towel — everybody left happy,” remembers Old Town Chinatown’s Howard Weiner while speaking to a journalist. “I don’t know about you, but I miss that.”

Portland’s Downtown Clean and Safe cleans downtown public restrooms and responds to clean up calls.  In 2005, Clean and Safe responded to 6000 calls a year from people who call for emergency clean up services in public areas at a cost of $10,000 a month.

The social costs and the attack on human dignity.

In addition to the economic costs, urban toiletlessness brings heavy social costs.    Human dignity is compromised: no person should have to relieve himself or herself in a public place and be subjected to public harassment, law enforcement or a potentially physically threatening situation.

 The best way to understand the affront to human dignity that accompanies limited restroom access is to listen to the citizens who have experienced homelessness.  The following conversations were recorded at Sisters of the Road Café   in the course of research for the book Voices from the Street:  Truths about Homelessness from Sisters of the Road. 

 I don’t know what the laws are here, but I know when I gotta go, I gotta go, and I’m gonna find a tree to go behind. And every time I do it, I say, “Oh boy. Please don’t let me go to jail tonight.

 But what is a woman to do when she has to use the restroom at night-time, in the middle of the night, when everything’s closed up?  And then, she goes and squats and uses the bathroom, what are you supposed to do?  “Oh!  You’re urinating in public!”  Thousand-dollar fine.  What am I supposed to do, hold it ‘til five or six o’clock in the morning, when something opens up?  I mean, this really needs to be taken a look at it, it really is, it’s something really serious…….. it’s time to sit at a table and look at it, and do something about it.

 Basically, I…I would not eat or drink because I was afraid that that I would not have a place to the bathroom, that is…that is another really terrible thing when you are homeless.  I have been kicked out of places, even a bar, I was about to go into the bathroom and they came and grabbed my arm and said, “You’re out of here, you’re not a client here, you can’t go to the bathroom here,” and I was told in quite a few places….., that I could not come in there anymore even though I used to phone also, so it is pretty humiliating.

 Those people caught breaking “civility laws” are arrested and fined.  When they cannot pay the fine, they suffer added indignities and consume judicial resources.   When homelessness is criminalized, people striving for a better life suddenly face new obstacles to finding employment and housing.   Leaving citizens in poverty is an affront to the human dignity of everyone in society

Public urination?

Just as graffiti causes a negative spiral in urban areas, so does the smell of urine.  Both keep people away.   Yet the best policing won’t stop public urination when facilities are unavailable.    It is not, however, acceptable.  Unless people speak out, however, it’s impossible to rally others, to advocate for for toilets or to let perpetrators know that their behavior is unacceptable.

How do you get the conversation started?     In Victoria, British Columbia, a city proud of its livability and attractiveness to visitors, launched a public anti-urination campaign and announced a $200 fine.    An attractive series of posters targetted patrons of local bars and pubs..

Please don't!

A business in the neighborhood where  PHLUSH works has posted the polite sign above in a vulnerable doorway.


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    Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human, or PHLUSH, is an all-volunteer advocacy group based in Portland's Old Town Chinatown. We collaborate with grassroots organizations, environmental activists, planners, architects, code officials and city managers. We receive support from the Old Town Chinatown Community Association and Neighbors West-Northwest. PHLUSH is a member of the World Toilet Organization and a partner in the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance.

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