The dearth of public restrooms in downtown Washington could affect anyone who happens to be in the area. But the group that’s working to remedy the situation, the People for Fairness Coalition, is most concerned about the lack of facilities for the homeless.
“The restroom project is one piece of the People for Fairness Coalition’s work that represents equality in the city,” said Albert Townsend, one of the group’s organizers and the emcee of a march and vigil last weekend to remember homeless people who died in Washington this year. Most of the members of PFC, which meets weekly at Miriam’s Kitchen, are homeless or have been in the past.
“We really need to consider just giving some due respect to . . . this class of people. Just having a decent restroom that’s clean, safe and monitored is really something we should offer for free,” Townsend said.
But, he said, the “lack of restrooms in the city is really a huge problem, not just for the folks who are unhoused, but anybody in general.” Although restrooms (without showers) are available in businesses, museums and other sites during the day, the downtown area has no freestanding facilities, and none that are open 24 hours.
In September, council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) introduced legislation to fund portable restrooms with showers and toilets. The bill was referred to the Health and Human Services Committee and the Committee of the Whole, but neither has scheduled a hearing, said Manny Geraldo, Orange’s director of communications.
“We had five or six co-sponsors, so we believe there’s support for the bill in the council,” Geraldo said.
One ally is council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who visited the vigil at Freedom Plaza on Saturday morning. “I haven’t seen it recently,” he said of the bill. “But I’d definitely support it.”
Grosso added: “I think we could do it this year. It’s a matter of just cost. We ought to figure that out in the budget cycle. We’ll take a look at it.”
Providing restroom facilities, Grosso said, is “the humane thing to do. It would give people an opportunity to use the restroom without bothering businesses. It’s about dignity. And really an option for the homeless to take care of themselves, which is important.”
The portable facility would be similar to those in use in other cities, including San Francisco. “We had a chance to visit one of their mobile units, and the council member was very, very impressed. It’s something he plans to keep on pushing for,” Geraldo said of Orange.
Townsend is less enthusiastic about the portable restroom. “We believe that doesn’t really fit the bill as a permanent tool,” he said. He would prefer to see a permanent facility.
To that end, PFC is sponsoring an online petition at change.org and circulating petitions at community events. One of the people gathering signatures is PFC member Jennifer McLaughlin, who said the ideal public restroom would be “clean, safe and open 24/7.”
The location, she said, should be “wherever the homeless congregate. There were some studies done on hot spots — where people hang out. We’re trying to use those models to figure out where to put the restrooms.”
“We have connected with the White House Visitors Center. They are supporting us 100 percent,” McLaughlin said. She also suggested the National Park Service as a possible provider of restroom services.
Another potential ally is the Downtown Business Improvement District, Townsend said.
“The city could do it. The BID could work with us,” Grosso said. “Certainly, the city and the BID work together all the time on these things. The city could fund it and hopefully get something out there. Maybe start as a pilot project downtown and see where else we need it.”
The BID’s communications director could not be reached for comment.
PFC’s connections reach well beyond downtown and include PHLUSH, or Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human, which is based in Portland, Ore. That group posted on its website an article about the District’s lack of restrooms.
“Right now we’re forging collective partnerships,” Townsend said. “PHLUSH will definitely be one of those partnerships. We need to know that there’s other cities that are really receptive to this. PHLUSH is showing us how other cities are. We’re reaching out to other jurisdictions. We’re reaching out to other people who do advocacy around work on this issue.”
Townsend cited Boston as a city that provides good public restrooms. “Other cities’ solutions may be something that fit our city,” he said. “But we definitely want to make it something that works for D.C.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.