A DC Group Advocates for Places to “Go”

Public Restrooms as Public Policy

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While we’re all different, as humans, we all have to eat, drink, and at some point, we all have to “go.”  If you are in downtown DC and urgently need a restroom, it can be hard to find one. Public restrooms have long been scarce, and the onset of COVID has only exacerbated the problem. Public libraries, memorials, and the Smithsonian museums have long been public restroom oases, but they have closed or have limited hours due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, restaurants and coffee shops are increasingly limiting restroom access to patrons. Fortunately, there is a group in DC actively working to address this issue.

People for Fairness Coalition (PFC) (https://pffcdc.org/) was established in April 2008 to ensure that all unhoused individuals in DC have access to affordable housing. Six years ago, the organization took on the challenge of ensuring that DC, like other world capitals, has clean, safe public restrooms that are available to everyone whenever needed.

In 2015, PFC visited 85 establishments in five downtown areas with high levels of pedestrian traffic and people experiencing homelessness to assess access to restrooms that are clean, safe, and available at any time of the day or night (https://pffcdc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Restroom-Inventory-Report-Summary.pdf). Not surprisingly, they found that availability was very limited. Marcia Bernbaum, Mentor and Adviser for PFC’s Downtown DC Public Restroom Initiative, notes, “Our strategy is to raise consciousness of the need for clean, safe public restrooms, educate on the problem and who benefits, and build support through advocacy.  We’re looking at two approaches in DC: providing incentives for businesses to open up their restrooms to the public and installing standalone public restroom facilities at high pedestrian traffic areas in DC.”

People of all ages appreciate access to a clean, safe public restrooms. Credit: Marcia PFC

The group’s efforts have paid off. The Public Restroom Facilities Installation and Promotion Act of 2017 was passed unanimously by the DC Council in December 2018 and became law in April 2019. In October 2020, the Department of General Services (DGS) reached out to ANCs and DC Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) to identify potential locations to pilot the standalone public restrooms.  Capitol Hill’s ANC6A was one of the ANC’s that expressed interest in the initiative. Amber Gove, Chair of ANC6A notes, “We voted to opt into the District’s Public Restroom Pilot Program and proposed two intersections on H Street NE as possible locations. Public restrooms are a win-win for our community and businesses by allowing access to clean and safe restrooms for all people including seniors, pregnant people, families, those with medical conditions, and our unhoused neighbors.”

While you may not haven’t thought much about standalone public restroom design, others have. DGS has not yet decided which model will be installed as part of its pilot, but the Portland Loo (www.portlandloo.biz) is popular in terms of safety, cost, and sanitation features in a COVID world.  These restrooms are modular with stainless steel walls that are both easy to clean and difficult to vandalize. Louvered grating at the top and bottom of the walls provide ventilation, privacy, and from a safety perspective, the ability to see and hear what is happening inside if need be.  A hand washing station is located on the outside of the unit, minimizing the amount of time anyone needs to spend inside, thereby avoiding bottlenecks and minimizing the risk of spreading any disease. Exposed plumbing  is wrapped in heated wire for freeze protection, so the unit can operate year round. The restrooms are ADA compliant and can be powered by electricity, solar panels or a hybrid system. They are also relatively inexpensive at approximately $95,000 a pop (plus installation costs), and they’re are durable:  models installed in Portland some 10 years ago are still in good working order today.

As for next steps, the Mayor will form an Interagency Working Group charged with selecting the appropriate standalone model and determining the locations for the two pilots using inputs from the ANCs and BIDs.  Once installed, the standalones will be monitored for a year, tracking costs, community reaction, and any maintenance or safety issues. Based on the findings, the program budget may be expanded to include two new restroom installations per year over the following four years.

Thanks to this initiative, finding a place to “go” in DC may eventually get a lot easier.  For more information on this issue and other PFC work on anti-discrimination and the right to housing, contact them at [email protected].

Catherine Plume is a lifelong environmentalist, a writer, and blogger for the DC Recycler: www.DCRecycler.blogspot.com; Twitter: @DC_Recycler.  She is also the Chair of the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club, however, perspectives expressed are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions of that organization.