While Seattle’s City Council elections are deeply polarized around how the city should approach the crisis of unsheltered homelessness, there is one fact upon which all of us can agree: Everybody poos. It’s simple biology. We breathe. We eat. We excrete. All of us.
I repeat: Everybody poos.
Most of us have the privilege of doing so indoors. For those who live on our streets, this most basic of human needs remains unmet. Ever since Seattle’s epic toilet debacle of more than a decade ago, public potties have been the third rail of local politics.
Fifteen years ago, the city spent about $1 million each on five high-tech toilets. The intent was to straddle public health and public safety concerns with self-cleaning bathrooms that discouraged unintended use.
That expensive experiment was an embarrassing public policy failure. While all five were closed within three years and then sold on Ebay for $12,549, the urgent need for public toilets did not go away. Since then, the city has half-heartedly sought solutions to an obvious problem.
This summer, Ballard will finally get Seattle’s first “Portland Loo.” This sister city export — a self-powered toilet that has slats at the top and bottom and features an external hand washing fixture — is designed to meet concerns over illicit use and comes at a more reasonable $550,000 price point. One could call this progress.
But don’t get too excited. The Ballard loo is hardly a harbinger of things to come. Ballard Commons comes with a water feature, and this, by law, means a toilet is required. No public toilet, no water feature. This hard choice, after four years of debate, finally resulted in one new place to poo. Bravo Ballard!
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Seattle used to have public restrooms. What happened?
This pathetic pace will not do. Seattle needs non-water-feature related toilets, and we needed them yesterday.
The January 2019 point-in-time count found more than 3,500 people living without shelter in the city of Seattle. This means that, despite four years of a “homeless state of emergency,” nearly half of homeless people still live outdoors after the shelters are basically full.
In 2018, the King County Board of Health declared that unsheltered homelessness is a public health crisis. Clearly, we need more affordable housing and enhanced shelter so homeless people will not have to live in tents, in vehicles, or out in the open. In the meantime, we can at least offer simple hygiene resources to help protect the health and dignity of people living without shelter.
A report on Seattle’s homeless sweeps, released in February by the City Auditor, found that there are just six 24/7 public toilets to meet the needs of unsheltered people in our city. Only two of these, located at Seattle’s Green Lake, were in good working order.
This represents a colossal failure of basic human compassion.
San Francisco offers a cost effective model for meeting this gap in public health. In 2014, that city opened three Mobile Pit Stop sites in the Tenderloin. In four years, that program expanded to 25 sites in 12 neighborhoods.
These mobile facilities provide safe and clean public toilets that can be moved in response to need. All units have running water, soap, and hand towels, as well as sharps containers and dog waste receptacles.
Paid attendants staff each Mobile Pit Stop. This ensures proper usage while creating jobs for people who face barriers to employment.
A portable restroom unit can be purchased for $73,000. The staffing cost for each unit runs about $82,000 annually. A service truck to maintain the units costs about $193,000.
The price tag for providing five mobile toilets would come to less than $1.5 million, and could be maintained after the initial capital outlay at a fraction of that cost.
Next month, Real Change will launch Everybody Poos, a campaign to invest in five mobile toilets. While City Council candidates debate the future of homelessness in Seattle, this issue of basic human need should unite us all.
There will be those who say this isn’t the right time. That our 2020 budget priorities are already fixed. That biology can wait. We don’t accept this.
It’s time for Seattle to shit or get off the pot. Homeless people have been waiting long enough.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace. He can be reached at director (at) realchangenews (dot) org
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