D.C. needs to invest more in public bathroom access

A block of the Georgetown neighborhood in Washington, D.C. (Photo via Picryl)

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

The tide of gentrification is gradual and acidic — it gnaws at the infrastructure of a city until it stops being for the people who live in it. Washington, D.C., recently got attention for destroying homeless encampments, and my colleague Caterina Ieronimo highlighted the city’s hostile architecture in a column last month — these are two products of its increasing gentrification. 

Another similarly insidious trend in the city has been creeping here from other urban centers: limiting bathroom access. The city enacted a bill  last year to pilot programs to combat this limitation, but this issue’s nationwide urgency shouldn’t be understated. And cities should never have bred it in the first place.

Public restrooms were removed from D.C. in part because they were considered “operating bases for perverts.” Additionally, the national trend of bathroom privatization — often by designating “customer only” bathrooms in businesses — is motivated in part by prejudice against homeless people. Currently, downtown D.C. only has three 24/7 public restrooms, which creates problems for many vulnerable communities. It’s not only hostile toward the homeless, but also the elderly, people with disabilities, and the large volume of tourists who visit the city every day. 

San Francisco is among the most notable examples of a city drowning in the consequences of neglecting public bathrooms. From 2008 to 2018, complaints to the city about human waste grew 400 percent — there even exists a fecal heat map of the city. The city funded a $750,000 poop patrol in late 2018 to clean the streets, but reports of feces still increased in 2019. 

Defecation in the streets is a systematic and virulent problem. We can’t look at it as just an index of the depravity of homelessness because — dehumanizing rhetoric aside — this becomes a public health problem for everyone. Even on the most self-interested level, it’s a risk to the entire city population. Viral infections can spread through waste, and California already had its largest Hepatitis A outbreak since the early 90s linked to the volume of feces on the streets. And in the current global context of the coronavirus outbreak, there’s evidence the virus can be transmitted the same way.

San Francisco’s public waste issue also indicates that many people lack bathroom access, which should be a human right. Everyone needs a place where they’re allowed to exist and where their basic needs are met. Yet the same trend exists in D.C. It’s not an accident that a city with the third-highest rent in the country has the most homeless people per 10,000 residents, yet it still lags in creating infrastructure to accommodate them. D.C. should prioritize the creation of public housing and safe shelter environments, not just beginning to expand public bathroom access.

The scale of this issue undermines the slow start of the task force set up by the D.C. law. The pilot program expects to test the addition of two public bathrooms by April 2021, which is a fair way to assess the plan’s efficacy. But how many more homeless encampments will the city clear in that time? How much will rent increase? How many businesses will become more restrictive about bathroom access, a trend seen by the People for Fairness Coalition from 2015 to 2017? This is an issue that requires the city’s holistic coordination.

The consequences of suppressing homeless people cannot be hidden on this scale. If D.C. doesn’t invest in public bathroom infrastructure, it’ll create a greater problem regarding waste disposal — and if it doesn’t invest in affordable housing, it’ll exacerbate other issues of inequality affecting the whole population. Raising quality of living standards shouldn’t be such a fraught thing for cities, but they’ve chosen to neglect vulnerable populations in favor of mass gentrification. And they’re not ready for the repercussions.

Hadron Chaudhary, opinion editor, is a senior English and geology major. They can be reached at chauds@umd.edu.

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