Women seem less likely to be arrested but more likely to be humiliated.
“It’s a big hit to your dignity the first time you have to squat down in a field or by the side of the road,” said Raven Drake, 37, who until recently was homeless and now works with Street Roots, a Portland group supporting the homeless. “Slowly you take these hits to your dignity, and one day you don’t even think you’re a person anymore.”
Drake told me that she had lived in a homeless encampment in Portland that was two miles from the nearest restroom she could use, and she flinched as she recounted the shame of having to relieve herself where she could, trying to avoid people leering. Toilets, she said, are an infrastructure issue, but also far more than that: “Bathrooms are a humanitarian issue.”
In the 19th century, the United States did set up public toilets in many cities. They were often called public urinals, abbreviated as P.U. (this may be part of the origin of “P.U.” to mean something that stinks, although there are competing theories). In the early 20th century, these were supplemented by “comfort stations” for men and women alike, but most closed in waves of cost-cutting over the years.
That’s partly because this is a class issue. Power brokers who decide on infrastructure priorities can find a restaurant to duck into, while that is less true of a Black teenage boy and utterly untrue of an unwashed homeless person with a shopping cart.
Granted, operating toilets is tough. American cities have experimented with various approaches to providing public restrooms and found that they are costly to maintain and sometimes attract drug use and prostitution. Still, no one would build a home today without a bathroom, even though it adds to the expense. So why economize and accept cities without lavatories?
Americans have had tumultuous debates about transgender use of restrooms, but we haven’t adequately acknowledged a more fundamental failing in Democratic-run and Republican-run cities alike: the outrageous shortage of public restrooms generally.
The White House can work with cities to experiment with various approaches to expand restroom access. We can work with corporate sponsors. We can use advertising to help underwrite the expense. We can give tax breaks to businesses that make restrooms open to all. There are models all over the world, such as India turning old buses into clean public toilets.