Public bathrooms are scarce in Seattle. What are the consequences?

a male restroom sign on brick wall

One analysis in January by journalist Erica C. Barnett of Publicola, who has tracked the actual availability of city toilet facilities for years, found that “Of more than 130 restrooms operated directly by the city, and not counting restrooms in library buildings or shelters operated by nonprofit providers, more than 60 are currently closed. Of those, fewer than half have been replaced by what the city euphemistically calls ‘sanicans,’ better known as portable toilets, and only a relative handful of them include a place for people to wash their hands after doing their business.”

photo of two public restrooms

The gaps between what is available on paper and what is actually available are part of a larger problem. While this may seem like sufficient bathrooms to many of us, some residents feel differently: It’s bad enough being homeless without constantly worrying about where you’re going to go when you need to use the bathroom.

Public bathrooms are not accessible to everyone

If you’re homeless, living on a low income, or don’t have access to a private restroom (for example, because you live in a building with no public bathroom), locating a public restroom is not an easy task. Some people are willing to pay for access to a restroom; others do their business wherever they can find an opportunity – whether it be at a bus stop or public park.

So why don’t some people want public bathrooms?

Though Seattle has thousands of public toilets on city-owned land, many parks don’t have portable toilets or bathroom facilities, meaning there’s nowhere for tourists and people without a home to use the restroom when visiting downtown neighborhoods like Belltown or Pike Place Market. But that hasn’t stopped some business owners from installing urinals specifically intended for homeless people; a hygiene issue that has become so severe officials at Westlake Park want it made into its own law, which was proposed under ex-Mayor Ed Murray’s Homeless Emergency Action Committee.

Our homeless neighbors need help

A lack of public restrooms can lead to more than just a serious case of small-bladder syndrome. It’s an added hardship for homeless people who can’t afford a membership at a gym or coffee shop that provides access to restrooms, and an accessibility issue for those with disabilities—the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to provide equal access, including accessible toilets. As a matter of fact, a recent shigella outbreak among the homeless coincides with public restroom closures.

How many public bathrooms would we need, anyway?

There are a lot of variables here, but we’ll start with three: first, how many public bathrooms would we need to meet demand (from schools, offices, etc.) in a 10-square mile area like downtown Seattle; second, how many public toilets would be required per person; and third, what’s our population of homeless people who need access to public restrooms during their daily routine?

Seattle needs more public restrooms

You might already know that. It’s not only a source of frustration for homeless residents and tourists, but also for many downtown workers who just can’t find a place to use their restroom on lunch breaks. But there is an epidemic of public-restroom deserts throughout our country, and it isn’t just affecting big cities or those with large populations—it’s a national problem that affects everyone from small town to big city dwellers alike. The lack of available public restrooms creates problems across all aspects of society: health, safety, environment, traffic congestion, and quality of life. Without sufficient clean restrooms easily accessible by pedestrians or by vehicles along transit routes, businesses suffer as well (people avoid going out to shop if they don’t have access to a bathroom), as do citizens (those with disabilities may face serious challenges when it comes to getting around). –MM

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Ubuntu Village will be traveling to Africa soon and we would like to document this trip and any other trips taken in a blog format.

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