A pilot program years in the making will soon address longstanding problems of access to sanitation and public restrooms for D.C. residents.
In mid-November, a working group appointed by Mayor Muriel Bowser will submit a report to the mayor’s office identifying the model of standalone public toilets to be used for the pilot along with one or two locations where it will be installed. The working group consists of nine government agencies.
The public restroom pilot is one of two programs created by the Public Restroom Facilities Installation and Promotion Act, which was enacted without Bowser’s signature in 2019. Under the legislation, the mayor will also create a community incentive program to encourage private businesses to allow public use of their restrooms.
The law’s implementation will cost $66,000, which was included in the fiscal year 2022 budget, according to a September presentation by an advocacy group that fought for the program, the People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC). As a model facility, the city is considering installing a Portland Loo, a self-cleaning bathroom.
The Portland Loo is the size of a parking space and is being used in 58 locations throughout the U.S. and Canada, according to PFFC. The facility has lighting inside and out. Most cities that use it hire an individual to maintain the bathroom’s cleanliness 2 to 5 times a day.
In 2014, research and advocacy from PFFC’s Downtown D.C. Public Restroom Initiative helped pave the way for the public restroom act. Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau helped to introduce the legislation in 2017 and the council passed it unanimously in 2018.
“This bill increases access to clean safe restrooms for all residents,” Nadeau tweeted at the time.
PFFC conducted two inventories of restrooms throughout five areas of downtown D.C., two years apart. The group reported that within those five locations there were fewer available public restrooms in 2017 than in 2015, with only 13% of private restrooms available to the public.
The coalition also checked whether or not there were discriminatory factors as to why someone might not be able to use a private business’s restroom. Marcy Bernbaum and another PFFC member returned to the original five locations, one well kept and one dressing more poorly to see which person was allowed to access the restroom.
“We would go into the different places and see what the reactions were of the people at the counter. We did find some discrimination,” said Bernbaum, who has advised PFFC’s public restroom initiative since its founding. “But the bottom line is, when you walk in, whoever is at the counter is going to size you up. Do you look like somebody they can trust?”
The public restroom pilot program was put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic reached D.C. Then, starting in May 2020, the city deployed portable toilets and handwashing stations to help unhoused residents stay safe.
In September, however, the D.C. Department of Public Works and the D.C. Office of Contracting and Procurement fell behind on payments to Gotta-Go-Now, a portable restroom company. ABC7 first reported that Gotta-Go-Now stopped servicing about 40 of the 60 tent city toilets because D.C. was between four and five months behind on its bills.
Through a separate and more recent pilot program, the city is removing people from the four largest encampments in the District. Andrew Anderson, the outreach director at PFFC, is worried that the portable toilets will be removed alongside the people. The first area targeted by the program, two underpasses on M and L Street in NoMa, was shut down last month.
The encampment pilot program includes eventual housing for some but not all of the people it displaces.
“As these encampments are closed up, those [portable restroom] units are going to be taken away as well. So I look at it as being a sad day. But we’re still advocating for those public units to be kept in place,” Anderson said.
Neither The Department of General Services’ Contracts and Procurement Division nor Gotta-Go-Now responded to Street Sense Media’s requests to confirm if the city paid the bill and whether the cleaning services resumed.
However, Anderson said he witnessed some of the portable toilets being processed at the NoMa location on L and M Street last week.
Another portable toilet is located at a small triangle park on 3rd St NW and Massachusetts Ave, where people can use it while waiting for the bus or after grabbing a drink at the nearby sports bar.
Ray, who lived in the triangle park until the National Park Service fenced it off on Oct. 15, said the toilet “is nasty, it is dirty.” The park was closed due to health and safety hazards, according to NPS.
There are two portable toilets and a handwashing station in a park at New Jersey Ave. and O Street NW, the next site that will be closed as part of the city’s encampment pilot program.
Alex Lopez, a neighborhood commissioner in the area, representing ANC 6E02, said it took about nine months of advocacy to get the second toilet added. On Oct. 23, when visiting the New Jersey and O encampment, Lopez witnessed there was no running water or soap, and trash had piled up around the restrooms.
However, a Nov. 2 email about the maintenance of the New Jersey and O Street NW encampments, obtained by Street Sense Media, says everything is in working order.
“The Porter-John continues to be serviced five days a week. At this time, we have no reports of it overflowing and we will continue to monitor and adjust accordingly,” wrote Jamal Weldon from the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services (DMHHS).
The shutdown of the New Jersey and O encampment is scheduled for Nov. 18, after which the park will be closed for renovations. On Oct. 5, there were 48 residents at the park, of which 32 were on the “by-name list” to receive housing through the pilot program, Lopez said. Sixteen were not, indicating roughly one in three encampment residents would be moved but not connected to housing. The numbers may have changed since then, with about 10 residents from NoMa moving to the New Jersey encampment after the place they were living was closed.
“The rationale for closing this encampment site is due to health and safety issues,” Lopez said. “If the city cannot provide basic sanitation and minimum level sanitation to house residents during a pandemic, that is horrible and unacceptable.”
Ultimately, the portable toilets and handwashing stations are a band-aid applied in response to a health crisis. While PFFC identified only two public restrooms in all of D.C. that are accessible 24/7, that will begin to change next year. The organization anticipates that sometime in December or January, once reviewed and approved by the mayor, the working group’s report will be issued for public comment.
“The next step, once public comments are incorporated (and approval obtained from the [advisory neighborhood commissions] where the standalone(s) are to be located), will be for DGS to procure and install the standalone public restroom in one or two locations,” according to PFFC.
How many locations initially get standalone restrooms depends on the available funding. The D.C. Council is considering using the Portland Loo, which is cheaper than other fully automated toilets. Also, the price for aluminum and other materials has risen due to supply chain shortages during the pandemic, Bernbaum said.
As for the other part of the public restroom law, the business incentive program, the next step after public comment will be for the Department of Small and Local Business and the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District to negotiate agreements with businesses in its boundaries that opt-in to receiving incentives for making their restrooms available to the public.
“The hope is that the restrooms could be used by housed and unhoused residents alike, tourists, those needing restrooms for health reasons, and more,” Bowser’s office told Street Sense Media.