Why Washington D.C. needs more public restrooms 

Everyone knows that going to the bathroom is a basic human need. People have no choice in answering this most fundamental call of nature. Any denial of it only increases its urgency and promotes greater levels of desperation and anxiety. The complete denial of it creates shame, humiliation, and embarrassment. The whole experience is dehumanizing — for children, the elderly, the disabled, diabetics, pregnant women. Everyone.

Customers and potential customers — those who appear to have money — are rarely denied their needs. The rest are turned away, despite sharing the same needs and being just as human.

Currently, the public discourse doesn’t recognize bathroom access as a fundamental human right. We aren’t even prioritizing it for its importance to basic health and hygiene measures, public or individual. Bathrooms are a frontline issue. These spaces represent the forefront of debate and conflict over every social disparity we have. We should be discussing bathrooms in relation to all of them. Bathrooms are a major point in the battleground over the use of space and how to accommodate all who hold a stake in it.

I have seen the evidence left behind by individuals who couldn’t make it to the bathroom in time, covering the floor with toilet paper and napkins, not knowing what else to do in the aftermath.

The lack of adequate public restrooms for people abandoned on the streets, perhaps with mental health or other issues impairing them, also impacts those who must share those spaces with them. What about those who need more frequent bathroom access with nowhere to go, who are forced to relieve themselves outside? Or those with mobility issues, who can’t travel to find safe sanitary facilities? When they can’t find a convenient bathroom, they do what they need to do. Safety is an issue. Rapes and assaults are also a risk for those who don’t have access, for both men and women. 

This problem is a manifestation of broader social disparities, including access to housing, health care, education, and social connection. Since communities have failed to comprehensively address these inequities, the symptoms spill out into public spaces. That is why the quality of public space and public hygiene are only as robust as that afforded to those living with the least. We all share in the commons.

One response has been imposing segregation by decreasing the number of bathrooms available to the public, as establishments designate them for “customers only” or close them altogether. Some people think they can isolate themselves and maintain their quality of life and access to amenities without having to consider resources available to all.

This is not a solution.

First of all, it is destructive to the very concept and definition of community. But moreover, it is impossible to completely isolate yourself forever, and not really how most people want to live. It may be uncomfortable to begin to address social ills and disparities, or to even acknowledge and recognize how bad they have gotten, and to accept the notion of collective responsibility. However, not only is it the right thing to do, it is a matter of self-interest.

The alternative is an expanding deterioration that doesn’t just result in fewer bathrooms, but a whole host of problems we also will collectively experience. Some say, “To the victors go to the spoils.” But in a community, we can either all be winners, or we can all be losers. There is no in between.

Lori Smith is a vendor with Street Sense Media.

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