A sign in the window of a Seattle  coffeehouse, December 26, 2009. Locals and tourists alike complain that the District is short on public restrooms. The problem is a daily one for people experiencing homelessness.

A sign in the window of a Seattle coffeehouse, December 26, 2009. Locals and tourists alike complain that the District is short on public restrooms. The problem is a daily one for people experiencing homelessness.

Imagine you’re downtown and you need to use the restroom. Maybe you’re pregnant, diabetic or a runner. Maybe you’re experiencing homelessness and don’t have bathroom of your own. Whoever you are, you don’t have many options.

You could try to get into a Smithsonian museum. Or find a restaurant that might make you buy something first. Or hike over to one of the two 24-hour public restrooms in the city — at the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials.

Business leaders, politicians and advocates for people experiencing homelessness all recognize that the lack of public restrooms in the District is a problem. We discuss some of the proposed solutions, and one city-sponsored bathroom-building strategy underway right now.

This segment is part of our 2020 contribution to the D.C. Homeless Crisis Reporting Project, in collaboration with other local newsrooms. The collective works will be published here. You can also join the public Facebook group or follow #DCHomelessCrisis on Twitter.

Produced by Lauren Markoe

Guests

  • Marcia Bernbaum Mentor, Public Restroom Initiative; Member, People For Fairness Coalition
  • Brianne Nadeau Member, D.C. Council (D-Ward 1); @BrianneKNadeau

Transcript

  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast will the end of eviction moratoriums in our region mean more homelessness?

  • 12:00:13

    KOJO NNAMDIBut first what happens when nature calls and there's not a public restroom in sight? Many people have complained about the lack of public facilities in D.C. from tourists to pregnant women to locals who recent having to buy a cup of coffee they don't want just to access a restroom. It's an even more pressing issue for people experiencing homelessness, who face this problem on a daily basis. And amid the pandemic, many public buildings with restrooms like libraries are closed.

  • 12:00:42

    KOJO NNAMDIToday as part of D.C. Homeless Crisis Reporting Project, we get an update on the quest for public restrooms in the District and how the pandemic maybe complicating this effort. Joining us now is Brianne Nadeau who represents Ward 1 on the D.C. Council. Brianne Nadeau, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:00

    BRIANNE NADEAUHi, Kojo, good to be here.

  • 12:01:02

    NNAMDISeveral years ago, you and several other members of the Council introduced a bill to increase the number of public restrooms in the District. Now it's law. Why did you write this law and what does it do?

  • 12:01:14

    NADEAUSo we knew from working with The People For Fairness Coalition, a group of formerly homeless residents, that there was a severe lack of public restrooms in the District of Columbia, not only during the daytime, but especially at night when restaurants and stores were closed and people didn't have anywhere to go, and for people who need to use a public restroom that could be anyone. It could be somebody with, you know, an illness that causes them to go a lot. It could be someone who's pregnant. It could be someone who's homeless. It could be really anyone, a small child. We weren't the most hospitable city we could be, and we weren't serving people as well as we could. So I introduced the legislation. It's now law as you mentioned and we're in the process of implementing it, and looking for the sites for the first two public restrooms that will be standalone.

  • 12:02:03

    NNAMDIHow much is this pilot program expected to cost the city?

  • 12:02:08

    NADEAUWell, to put the restrooms in it will cost about -- it will cost $270,000. And then there are some other costs, you know, for staffing to start up the program.

  • 12:02:21

    NNAMDIOkay. The law went into effect at the start of 2019. When do we expect the public facilities to be built?

  • 12:02:29

    NADEAUWell, once we've gone through the process of selecting the sites with public input and input from the Advisory Neighborhood commissioners, we do expect them to be up and running by the end of next year, and there is funding to do more in the falling year and the year after that thanks to my colleague Robert White.

  • 12:02:47

    NNAMDIWell, you mentioned pregnant persons. It's my understanding that you were recently one of those. How is -- and let me see if I get this pronounced correctly. How is Madeline Eliza doing? Is that the correct pronunciation of your new daughter's name?

  • 12:02:59

    NADEAUMadeline, yeah, Madeline.

  • 12:03:00

    NNAMDIMadeline Eliza.

  • 12:03:01

    NADEAUShe's doing great. Thanks for asking. Yeah. She's doing great. She's with her dad, hopefully napping right now.

  • 12:03:03

    NNAMDIHow old is she now?

  • 12:03:06

    NADEAUShe's six weeks old. And she is eating well and sleeping well. And that's really all you can ask of a six week old, right?

  • 12:03:14

    NNAMDISix weeks, time to start looking for a job for her. But that's a whole other story.

  • 12:03:18

    NADEAUThat's right. Put her to work.

  • 12:03:19

    NNAMDIAlso joining us is Marcia Bernbaum who a Mentor and Advisor for the aforementioned People For Justice Coalition's public restroom initiative and advocate for people experiencing homelessness. Marcia Bernbaum, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:03:33

    MARCIA BERNBAUMThank you.

  • 12:03:35

    NNAMDIYou and the organization you belong to worked hard to get the District to address its lack of restrooms. Tell us about your group and why this issue is a priority for you.

  • 12:03:45

    BERNBAUMWell, it is a priority, because it's a priority for everybody. One of our members in July of 2014 shared with us that there was an issue with restrooms, and we went and looked at it, looked at options. Did a feasibility study and decided to establish as our goal clean, safe public restrooms open in needed areas of D.C. for everybody, not just the homeless, but everybody. And so then we began our quest of identifying areas where we thought they might be appropriate. Building up community support with ANCs, bids, community organizations and to our great pleasure in November of '16 when we were just had prepared our presentation, we presented to Councilmember Nadeau. And to our delight and surprise, two weeks later, she -- I heard that they were planning to write a bill, and asked for our input based on the research that we did.

  • 12:04:51

    NNAMDIMarcia Bernbaum, paint a picture of people experiencing homelessness in the District today. How many people are living on the streets? And is the problem getting better or worse?

  • 12:05:01

    BERNBAUMIt's 6,380 homeless. It's gone down somewhat over the last couple of years. And we have -- of those people we have -- I'm sorry, giving wrong information here -- we have 300 and some living on the streets and the others in shelters. So there are 1,337 homeless adults, and of them about 300 are living on the streets and the others in shelters. We, by the way, I think it's important, Kojo, to point out that we have the highest incidence of homelessness in the United States. Of every 1,000 people there are nine homeless. That's way above any other city.

  • 12:05:59

    NNAMDIAnd, Marcia, do we know how the pandemic is affecting people experiencing homelessness?

  • 12:06:05

    BERNBAUMWell, we can tell you it's clearly they're experiencing a lot of issues. We're seeing increases in people living in encampments. And our group is out there going out and visiting them and providing supplies. In terms of access to restrooms, in our research we found that there are only five restrooms open during the day that would accept people that were homeless in only two Lincoln and Jefferson Memorial and most of those are closed now. Ironically, the Department of Human Services, which has done actually a very good job of helping the homeless in many ways put in port-a-potties and handwashing stations in the areas where there are encampments. And so for the moment, for the first, ironically enough, they do have access to restrooms.

  • 12:06:55

    NNAMDIMarcia Bernbaum, tell us a few areas where you think a public restroom makes a lot sense, and where the pilot project that we discussed earlier with Brianne Nadeau should start.

  • 12:07:05

    BERNBAUMWell, we have identified of series of criteria based on our research, because all of our work is research based, of what makes for a good location for a standalone restroom open 24-7. An area with a lot of pedestrian and vehicular traffic and people of variety from backgrounds, people who experience homelessness, shoppers, tourists, people going to work. That's one criteria. In that area, an open visible place so that one can see during the day who's going in and out of it.

  • 12:07:38

    BERNBAUMThe third, which is absolutely fundamental is support from the local business and community. Lighting at night near where the restroom is and while the community are keeping their eyes out during the day, at night having police or somebody go by. So actually we have identified six locations that we believe meet those criteria. There may be more. One is Dupont Circle. Another is the 14th and U Street corridor, which is under the purview of Councilmember Nadeau. A third is Gallery Place. A fourth is Capitol Hill. And 7th and 8th Street between Eastern Market on one side, Barracks Row in the other. And another is the Adams Morgan at 18th and Columbia Road. And the final one is H Street corridor between 2nd and 9th Street in Northeast, and so all those meet the criteria.

  • 12:08:34

    BERNBAUMThe question is right now, what we're waiting for, is for ANC, the bids, to get back to us to indicate whether they would like in those areas or others to participate in the pilot.

  • 12:08:46

    NNAMDICouncilmember Nadeau, do you agree those are some of the best spots? What about East of the river? Should there be public restrooms in Wards 7 and 8?

  • 12:08:55

    NADEAUWell, obviously, I'm partial to the sites in Ward 1, but, yes, we certainly want to ensure that we have equitable access to restrooms. The areas that Marcy had identified thus far are ones that have a lot of foot traffic, you know, and a lot of visitors, and I think that's a good place to start.

  • 12:09:17

    NNAMDIThat's the criteria in foot traffic and visitors. Here is Gordon in Ward 5. Gordon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:09:23

    GORDONThanks, Kojo. I have a gastrointestinal condition. I have irritable bowel syndrome. And one of the things I wanted to say in addition to the many benefits of public restrooms for homeless people is that a lot of people like me, who are residents of D.C. or who are tourists just have to go to the bathroom. And so it's not just a condition of people who have the sorts of challenges of people experiencing homelessness. But it's just something we all have to do. And if housing is healthcare in the condition of homelessness then I also believe that public restrooms are healthcare.

  • 12:10:03

    NNAMDIAnd, Marcia Bernbaum, would you agree?

  • 12:10:07

    BERNBAUMYes. I would absolutely agree. And the gentleman who spoke, speaks of a condition where many people how have -- who are restroom challenged, himself, myself -- I'm 71 has lower bladders, kids, when you have to go, you have to go urgently. And another issue in D.C., Kojo, we do have public -- we're talking about restrooms downtown. There are restrooms in other areas. But one issue that the D.C. government could easily address is European and Asian cities have websites and apps where you can go in and find out where restrooms are, what their hours are, what they have. And in Washington, one, unless you know the neighborhood, you don't know where to go. So I've often said to the D.C. government at least put up a website that indicates where they are and what their conditions are.

  • 12:10:57

    NNAMDIThat seems to be something that the mayor's office would have to handle. Brianne Nadeau, is there anything the Council can do about that?

  • 12:11:05

    NADEAUWell, I think it's a great idea, and I'd be happy to work with the mayor's team to do something like that.

  • 12:11:09

    NNAMDIHere is Chez in Columbia Heights. Chez, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:11:15

    CHEZThank you, Kojo. And thank you for bringing up this topic. I've seen people go to the bathroom between -- on 14th Street in Columbia Heights between Columbia Road or Irving and Park. You know, just a little bit out of sight or at bus stops. You know, they fully take down their pants.

  • 12:11:44

    NNAMDIChez, hold your thought for a second, because we've got to take a short break. Obviously you see people going to the bathroom in public. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:32

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Today as part of the D.C. Homeless Crisis Reporting Project, we're getting an update on the quest for public restrooms in the District. We're talking with Brianne Nadeau who represents Ward 1 on the D.C. Council and Marcie Bernbaum, Mentor and Advisor for the People For Fairness Coalition's public restroom initiative and an advocate for people experiencing homelessness.

  • 12:12:52

    NNAMDIWhen we took that break we were talking with Chez in Columbia Heights, who was not quite finished talking about seeing people having to go to the bathroom so to speak in a public space. Chez, it's my understanding that you too have experienced homelessness, right?

  • 12:13:08

    CHEZYes, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania briefly, and I had to stay in my storage unit and sneak in and out of it. And the first thing on my mind in the mornings, where am I going to go to the bathroom? You know, a lot of those places, and especially in D.C., you get signs that say, "No Public Bathroom," "Bathroom for Patrons Only" including McDonald's. You know, so either have money or you don't go to the bathroom. You go on yourself. And that's, those are some options that people face.

  • 12:13:46

    NNAMDIOkay.

  • 12:13:47

    CHEZAnd secondly, I'd like to bring out that I'm not homeless right now. My apartment--my (word?) is stopped up and I haven't been able to get that fixed. And so that's what I'm doing. I'm going and buying something at a supermarket in order to use their bathroom. First thing in the morning and throughout the day until I get this fixed.

  • 12:14:09

    NNAMDIOkay.

  • 12:14:10

    CHEZSo that is a problem. And having lived in Seattle, Boston -- I'm 73 years old. So I've lived in many cities. I've never seen people's personal belongings out on the street when people get evicted like they do here in D.C.

  • 12:14:26

    NNAMDIOkay. And later in this broadcast we'll be talking about the issue of evictions. But, Chez, thank you very much for sharing your story with us. Brianne Nadeau, decades ago the District used to have more public bathrooms. They were known as comfort stations. They were shutdown, because city officials said they became hotspots for crime and sexual activity. There are also challenges with keeping public facilities clean. Are you concerned the same thing could happen in D.C. again?

  • 12:14:54

    NADEAUKojo, I'm not because of the criteria that Marcy mentioned earlier about the site selection and also because the technology has advanced. You know, we've looked at other cities that have standalone public restrooms and there are self-cleaning restrooms. There are restrooms that have, you know, time limits to how long you can be inside them. There are all kinds of things that keep them safe and clean now.

  • 12:15:19

    NADEAUAnd I do want to say, too, to Chez, first of all, thanks for sharing your story, but also, you know, the thing that he's talking about with businesses turning folks away. One component of this legislation, of this law is actually an incentive for businesses to make their restrooms publically available. So there is a monetary incentive that will be administered through the Department of Small and Local Business Development for those, who will keep their doors open and allow folks to use them regardless of whether they're a customer.

  • 12:15:49

    NNAMDIBut it's my understanding that that part of the legislation has been delayed somewhat, because of the pandemic.

  • 12:15:55

    NADEAURight, because the businesses are mostly closed. So it didn't make a ton of sense to try to implement it. You know, it really does highlight the issue, though. So it's meant to compliment the standalone restrooms, but you can't do one without the other long-term either, right? There's not enough standalone in the budget to solve this problem. But also, you can't just depend on the businesses, because when the businesses are closed as Marcy mentioned from their study and as we know from the pandemic, you really do need the government to step in and provide those facilities.

  • 12:16:24

    NNAMDIHere is Sarah in Maryland. Sarah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:16:27

    SARAHYeah, I just wanted to point out that I've been traveling all over the world since the 80s. And from Czechoslovakia to Nicaragua there are public restrooms available. But in many of the countries I've visited they also are staffed by some -- well, I go to the ladies room, obviously. So a little old lady sitting there on a chair and either she -- depending on the country, she charged you one minimal coin to enter or for paper to dry your hands or for toilet paper or that she just sat there with a tip jar because she was getting a salary to make sure that the place stayed clean and people weren't in there longer than they should and weren't doing things in there that they shouldn't. They were just going in and using it as a bathroom and leaving.

  • 12:17:20

    SARAHAnd so I thought when I heard your show or your people talking that that might be -- since we have so many unemployed people and I know there's going to be a cost to the city to keep these places clean, it's much easier to keep them clean as an ongoing, you know, 8 hour job or 10 hour job or whatever it is than to go in there when it's a total disaster and have to do cleanup. So I just thought perhaps they could consider making it a -- a new public service job.

  • 12:17:50

    NNAMDISarah, glad you brought that up as a result of your traveling around the world, because, Marcia Bernbaum, you have studied public restrooms the world over. Which cities do a good job of it?

  • 12:18:02

    BERNBAUMMany cities in Europe. Let me just start with an example of London to contrast London with us. So in one square mile of London we have five public restrooms open today. They have eight that are attended as this lady spoke who are open from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. They have 10 standalone public restrooms open 24-7, four urinals that come up at night, and 75 businesses that open their restrooms to the public.

  • 12:18:32

    BERNBAUMAnd as Councilmember Nadeau mentioned really it's a matter of both. Standalone restrooms open for 24-7 are particularly important in areas where there's a lot of activity at night. But to have the complement of businesses open during the day with pride incentives to the public is very useful. There are also models as Brianne Nadeau mentioned that have proven to be very effective in terms of maintaining cleanliness and safety. And we can go into that if you like.

  • 12:19:03

    NNAMDIWell, Marcia Bernbaum, we go into that, talk about the U.S. Do any cities in this country have a decent number of clean, safe public restrooms?

  • 12:19:14

    BERNBAUMI cannot give you that answer. I can tell you of cities that have been successful in installing clean, safe public restrooms open 24-7. As Councilmember Nadeau mentioned, in the early 1900s in other places, New York and elsewhere there were many restrooms that were closed down. So now we're seeing a trend going up. I could share with you a number of cities that are using -- the Portland Loo has been extremely effective. We've done research to learn about how they're operating. So it's in Portland. It's in Miami, Hoboken, San Diego, etcetera, but, yeah, I think we have a restroom issue throughout our country right now.

  • 12:19:55

    NNAMDIWell, you mentioned the Portland Loo. What about the X Loo. Some listeners may remember when it was reported last year that Metro paid more than $400,000 to install and maintain a self-cleaning toilet called the X Loo at the Huntington Station on the Yellow Line. That toilet has not been in use since 2017. What do you say to people, who point to that experience and say, let's not try a public restroom experiment again, Marcia Bernbaum?

  • 12:20:23

    BERNBAUMWell, I visited the Huntington Station. There were issues with lack of maintenance. So there are two types of standalones. One is the automatic public toilet, which you find more frequently in Europe, which is totally closed. And then it's cleaned inside. The X Loo we visited in Winchester, Virginia where it's been very effective, but it requires a lot of maintenance.

  • 12:20:48

    BERNBAUMIt requires -- it's got a lot of high technology that needs to be updated that was part of the problem with the X Loo in Huntington Station. So you take the Portland Loo, which was designed based on problems that have been experienced elsewhere, it is very inexpensive. It is open with slots at that top and bottom so you can see and hear what's going on inside. There is no sink inside. So they want to get people in and out quickly with sink outside. And it has been -- as long as it's been sited appropriately it's been very effective.

  • 12:21:22

    BERNBAUMIndeed many cities will hire individuals, who are homeless or whoever who come in and manually clean it every day. It does not require a lot of technology. So you can easily replace it, and costs about a third of the standalone.

  • 12:21:36

    NNAMDIOkay.

  • 12:21:36

    BERNBAUMBut the X Loo and others are fine in areas where it makes sense.

  • 12:21:39

    NNAMDICouncilmember Nadeau, we only have about 40 seconds left, but Michael emails, "Any possibility of reopening the underground long closed underground restrooms on the side of the Carnegie Library now the Apple Store?"

  • 12:21:51

    NADEAUI do not know. That's a great question with good location. So we should look into it.

  • 12:21:57

    NNAMDIExactly right. Brianne Nadeau represents Ward 1 on the D.C. Council. Marcia Bernbaum is a Mentor and Advisor for the People For Fairness Coalition's public restroom initiative. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, will the end of eviction moratoriums in our region mean more homelessness? We're looking for answers. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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