With just 1,103 public restrooms available to use in the city, according to research from the Urban Design Forum, New Yorkers continue to struggle in accessing clean and working facilities. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, that issue was exacerbated, as bars and restaurants – the providers of the city’s unofficial restrooms – closed their doors. Those who had the luxury to walk into a restaurant or cafe were no longer allowed to use the restroom.
Restroom goers witnessed massive lines outside the public facilities, with a history of malfunctions, lack of maintenance all while several of them were closed. The set of issues along with the pandemic placed New Yorkers in situations where access to public restrooms was greatly needed but was hard to come by.
To explore why New Yorkers continue to face obstacles when accessing public restrooms and to assess what can be improved in the system with a new city government taking over in January, City & State consulted three experts in the field by phone and email: Jacquelyn Simone, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless; Marni Sommer, professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and Ashley Belcher, outreach and organizing specialist at Human.nyc, an advocacy organization focused on ending street homelessness through organizing and making policy changes.
What are the consequences of public urination? Why does it continue to be an issue for New York City?
Jacquelyn Simone: Public urination is the inevitable outcome of a city that does not invest in sufficient public restroom infrastructure where people can meet their basic needs. Many people do not have the luxury of a private indoor place of their own where they can relieve themselves. As a result, many people who are living outdoors have no option other than to relieve themselves on the streets. The lack of public restrooms also affects people who find themselves in public at a moment when they need to relieve themselves. That can include people with young children, disabilities, medical conditions that make it challenging for them to have greater control over their bodily functions. The bottom line is that increasing the number of public restroom facilities around the city helps all of those people so that they have a more dignified, safe and clean way to relieve themselves.
Ashley Belcher: As someone who used to be homeless on the streets, I know how hard it is to find a bathroom. One of the consequences of public urination for homeless people is humiliation. Because there are virtually no public bathrooms, we can be left with no choice but to go somewhere in public – even though virtually everyone would prefer to have a private space to urinate. The hygiene and health consequences are awful for us too. I think it continues to be an issue in New York City because the City does not believe or recognize that access to public bathrooms should be a right, and could benefit not just homeless folks, but nearly everyone.
What recommendations would you give to the city to improve the current public bathroom system?
Marni Sommer: The very basic in terms of the city, revamping, restoring, and maintaining the public bathrooms in the subway system and in the parks. One proposal was to create partnerships with the private sector so that for example, some company that wants advertising space, takes on responsibility for monitoring select toilets. They get to do advertising for their company or their products in that bathroom. Another idea was what the city could do is have requirements that if you’re going to build X large office space, somewhere in the city, that you have to build one outward-facing public toilet on the side of that building.
Belcher: Currently, there are limited public places where people who are homeless can go to use the bathroom, which leads to a reliance on private places like coffee shops or restaurants. I would recommend for more public bathrooms to be set up in public spaces such as outside and also in subway stations. It's not okay or feasible for the city to rely on coffee shops and restaurants. In addition, workers at private places like that often turn away homeless people, and even when they do let them in, it is again humiliating for the person who uses the bathroom.
Why is it important for major cities to have access to public bathrooms for all individuals?
Simone: Urination and defecation are basic bodily functions that all human beings do, and ignoring that reality leads to issues like public urination or people having medical issues from not being able to relieve themselves in a timely fashion. I think that as the city considers its broader infrastructure, it’s imperative to ensure that unsheltered people who are visiting the city, people who have disabilities, people who have young children all have somewhere safe where they can meet that basic bodily function. I think that it’s important to have adequate public restrooms for the most vulnerable people in society, those who are living unsheltered on the streets and have nowhere indoors where they could use the restrooms.
Sommer: Every human being needs to use toilets. And yet, it's this thing, a basic right we cannot provide, and no one wants to talk about it. So I just think, how can you be a modern city that wants people to commute and actively engage with the sort of the shopping and the restaurants and the office space and the touring and the wandering around, if you don't provide something as basic as a place to manage your period and use the toilet when you need to. I don't want people penalized when they have no alternative and they're managing really uncomfortable situations outside. It’s not only just a basic right, but it's good for the economics and the governance of the city.
In 2016, public urination cases were switched to civil court rather than criminal court under the Criminal Justice Reform Act. Before that, public urination was one of the most common ways people were arrested in the city. How would an expansion of the public bathroom system combat the criminalization of public urination?
Simone: When we talk about the criminalization of issues like public urination, we also need to acknowledge the disparate impact this has on people of color. So even if a young child is urinating on the street because there's no public restroom, or a Black man who was homeless is urinating on the street because there's no public restroom. I think many people know which of those people would be more likely to encounter a punitive response even though the reasons that they are relieving themselves on the streets are the same: that there is not an adequate public restroom accessible to them. I think it's very cruel for the city to not provide a safe, clean alternative for people to fulfill a basic bodily function and then to criminalize the inevitable outcome when people do urinate on the street due to the lack of public restrooms.
Belcher: Nobody would choose to go to the bathroom in public if they had access to a bathroom. When there are more bathrooms, people will not have to go in public. People try really hard to find somewhere to go. It's only when left with no choice and a person is in so much discomfort that they go to the bathroom in public. Expanding the public bathroom system would increase access to bathrooms for everyone – so with more bathrooms, there will be less public urination and subsequently less criminalization.
Should it be the city government’s responsibility to provide New Yorkers with an accessible, upgraded public bathroom system?
Simone: I believe that it should be. I think that the function of the municipal government is to meet people's basic needs. The need for clean bathroom facilities in public is vital, not just for people who are unsheltered but also for many other people who need to use the restroom and are in public spaces in New York City. I do think that the city should be ensuring that people have a place to go, use the restroom safely. I think that many other cities have implemented reforms that New York City should certainly consider in ensuring that people have a safe indoor place to use the restroom.
Sommer: I understand better now the complexities of a city like New York and although I think they should facilitate that, I don't know that they have the resources to make that available in and of itself alone. It is a combination of solutions, such as the ones I've listed. But someone needs to coordinate that. Make it enabling for the private sector and provide public sector space and/or come up with these creative ways to do partnerships. Knowing New York’s economic issues, I don’t think it’s 100% on them to build a public toilet chain. But I think they need to be the ones to make that happen. Whatever combination of ways will make that happen.
Belcher: Absolutely. All New Yorkers should have readily available and accessible public bathrooms.