Unhoused Washingtonians need places to shower and do laundry. Could sanitation buses be the answer?

Photo of Daniel Rosas standing at a portable sink next to a portable toilet.

Daniel Rosas rests his foot on the petal of a portable sink on E Street in Foggy Bottom, but the water supply is empty, leaving nothing for unhoused residents to sanitize their hands. Photo by Jarrod Wardwell

Alleyways used as bathrooms, portable toilets with piling waste, and mile-long walks with bags of soiled clothes are just a few of the unlivable and unsanitary conditions that individuals experiencing homelessness face in D.C. But in a recent push, a group of advisory neighborhood commissioners have presented a potential solution: mobile sanitation facilities.

The Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission passed a resolution in June, calling on the D.C. Council, plus the District Department of Human Services, to allocate $400,000 to fund mobile sanitation facilities. Showers, bathrooms and laundry machines would be installed and transported in buses circling the city for unhoused residents and others without access to proper sanitation. The proposal would lower a major hurdle for unhoused locals, many of whom currently walk a mile or more from their encampments to shower or do laundry at spots like churches and community centers just once or twice a week.

Commissioner Yannik Omictin, who introduced the ANC’s resolution to fund the mobile facilities, represents a homeless encampment near the corner of E and 20th streets, where he said the Downtown Day Services Center and the Georgetown Ministry Center serve as the nearest facilities for showers and laundry. He said “not too many” people living at the encampment make the trip to either site, located about one and 1.3 miles away, respectively.

“There is a need that is outstripping their capacity and a need that [the Downtown Day Services Center doesn’t] even see because they are literally a stationary building in Downtown when there are so many encampments throughout the city that are not near that facility at all,” Omictin said.

Trekking out to such a facility for sanitation has numerous drawbacks, advocates, and individuals experiencing homelessness say. Among them: having to navigate the city, leave behind unprotected belongings, and potentially miss the case workers who stop by encampments. Omictin said adverse weather conditions, such as intense heat or rain, also will often render showers or laundry loads useless.

“If it’s hot as heck out there, and you walk all that way, by the time you come back after your shower’s done, you’re going to need a new shower,” he said. “If you’re doing your laundry, and then it starts to rain and all of your stuff gets tarnished, you’re going to have to go right back to the laundry machine.”

Most sanitation sites in the city are open only during the day, when lines stream out from the buildings and cause delays, according to multiple commissioners and unhoused residents. Omictin said he was motivated to present the resolution for mobile sanitation facilities after walking through the E Street encampment in June and asking residents what they needed most. The most common answer?  People wanted to shower.

With the ANC’s resolution under consideration by the D.C. government, Omictin said the majority of the funding for the mobile facilities would go toward staffing the vehicle and equipping the buses with showers and laundry machines. One person would manage each bus, maintaining its facilities and connecting unhoused residents with homelessness services such as registration for the Homeless Management Information System, which collects data on the unhoused community.

Omictin pointed to Portland, Oregon, as a city that’s already begun circulating buses with showers and laundry machines transported in separate vehicles. Former D.C. Councilmember Vincent Orange proposed legislation in 2016 that would initiate a program installing hot showers and toilets in city-owned buses and shuttle them through the city, but the Council delayed action on the legislation and never passed it.

DHS spokesperson Lauren Kinard said District officials had received the ANC’s resolution, which they submitted to the city’s public restroom facilities working group to review the commission’s proposals and provide recommendations to Mayor Muriel Bowser. Kinard said DHS will hold “community engagements” this fall, where local residents can share their input on the matter.

“Community engagement is essential and a community-based participatory approach is a vital component of this work; and, this fall, there will be community engagements where public comment, ideas, and insight are welcome,” she said in an email.

Spokespeople for Councilmembers Brooke Pinto and Brianne Nadeau, who were sent copies of the resolution, did not return multiple requests for comment. Commissioner Alexandra Bailey, who serves on the ANC surrounding Logan Circle, said she’s drafting a similar resolution to request District officials to raise funds for the mobile facilities.

Rather than venturing out to the nearest sanitation facility, some unhoused individuals in the District forgo the trip to the nearest sanitation facility, instead relying on portable toilets, alleyways and makeshift resources to use the bathroom near the tent. Conditions quickly turn unsanitary as a result, people within the homeless community said.

Sharon Brown, a resident at the encampment near the Watergate Complex, said she can afford to take the Metrobus to the Downtown Day Services Center, where she does laundry once a week and showers twice a week. She currently uses a cart to carry all of her clothes, previously hauling a backpack, purse and laundry bag to the center.

“Before I had a cart, I was lugging it,” Brown said. “I had my backpack on my back, my purse on my shoulder and my big laundry bag. I’d have a laundry bag stuffed with my dirty clothes.”

Brown said unhoused residents at the downtown facility typically stay in the building for as long as possible before departing, but because of COVID-19 capacity restrictions, many others are left waiting for entry outside in the heat until someone else exits the building. When Brown was using the center last month, “a mass of people” were standing in line under the midday sun.

She said mobile showers and laundry facilities would eliminate some of the common struggles with delays and physical transportation if unhoused residents could shower right outside their tents. Locals would also appreciate mobile bathrooms, Brown suggested, since many community members either use the portable toilet at the encampment or the bathroom at the local library about four blocks away.

Brown said the encampment’s portable toilet once filled up with waste so high that it became difficult to sit down and use the bathroom. She said she called the toilet company four days in a row until someone came to service the facility.

“The last call I made, I said, ‘Listen I’m really sorry, I don’t mean to complain,’ but I said ‘We cannot get anymore poop in this porta potty. You can’t sit on it, that’s how high the poop is.’ And I said ‘It’s not very sanitary.’”

Daniel Rosas, a 71-year old from Cleveland Park who lived in the E Street encampment earlier this year, said unhoused residents there would work with their surroundings to shower or use the bathroom instead of walking to Downtown or Georgetown. Rosas said he would wear a swimsuit, bring a bucket of water and step out into the rain to take his showers; another man, he said, would use a hose located near the encampment.

Rosas said he would also choose to urinate in a cup and defecate in a newspaper to avoid using the single portable toilet that would be shared between the more than 20 residents at the encampment. Others often use alleyways as bathrooms instead of the toilets, he said.

“Two or three times that I went just to pee or to check on the bathroom it was always busy,” Rosas said. “I’m not going to make them go out, but some of the people are waiting.”

Recounting one moment that exhibited the lack of privacy that unhoused individuals receive, Rosas said he was once filmed by two men cleaning himself while partially exposed behind a pair of benches in the city.

Rosas said he wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing a mobile shower and laundry space because of health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. City officials, he said, should drop off more portable toilets to split between residents at the encampment. 

“They need more bathrooms, and now they have more people here,” Rosas said. “I mean, you have to do what you have to do to survive.”

Issues |Health, Physical|Living Unsheltered|Social Services

Region |Washington DC

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