People experiencing homelessness have high health risks, but access to sanitation is a component of all people’s basic health.
Most cities have some public bathrooms and regulated sewage systems, but a pressing issue is often overlooked: Are these amenities distributed equally?
Access to bathrooms and bathing space is a persistent problem for people without plumbed homes. Park bathrooms close in the evenings, and restaurants and stores ask that you buy an item before using their stalls most of the time. I am someone who has easy access to bathrooms at establishments throughout the city, in addition to my bathroom at home.
People experiencing homelessness or otherwise lacking sanitation access are often stigmatized on sight and disallowed from using bathrooms, even if they may support the business as I would, by just passing through.
Today there are a staggering number of people who have no place to urinate, defecate or bathe without being exposed or arrested. This may adversly affect a person’s physical and mental health. The need for sanitation space with privacy is often out of reach for people who are homeless.
Walking long distances in inclement weather or being turned away in repeated attempts to find a bathroom is a health and dignity risk, or even impossible for some individuals.
Bathroom access is a foundational human right in a civilization where you can’t just go to the bathroom anywhere. Sanitizing human waste to reduce the spread of disease is also vital in our society. But sanitation access is not abstract. People face this issue every minute of every day in our city.
When the number of people on the streets increases most years along with the city’s population, those of us with access must answer hard questions regarding the overall health of homeless people in Seattle. Housing, health and well-being are human rights.
Conversations and empathetic actions can aid the advancement of someone experiencing homelessness. People without housing or without stable housing have immediate the immdiate concerns of a safe place to sleep at night, adequate food, a private place to use the bathroom and bathe, and clean and warm clothing.
Combining immediate assistance with the time needed for reduction and trauma recovery is all crucial to someone's wellbeing and recovery from the, unfortunately sure, trauma of homelessness. An immediate yet holistic approach serves equity and a collective vision of public health.
People who have experienced homelessness may be able to attest to the need for bathrooms and echoed by direct service providers like the Real Change advocates behind the recent “Everybody Poos” campaign for city funded sanitary stations.
Cities in addition to Seattle are experimenting with standalone, public sanitation stations, also called “mobile bathrooms” or “pit stops,” but there is no evidence yet to support the sustainability of these programs.
The issue of sanitation security is evolving with cities’ growth, but we all must participate to realize the collective vision.
If we ignore the individual and public health crises of homelessness, we will be continually daunted by the scale of need and, thus, assume someone else is solving the problem.
Many people with unstable housing end up on metropolis streets due to lacking regional resources and high costs of living. In these cities we all flock to for the resources, where many people live in oft displaced tents, tiny home villages and vehicles, we must prioritize bathrooms as much as shelter.
The communities where we reside should provide sanitation access.
We must ensure adequate health standards for all, regardless of whether a person has their own toilet to flush.
Audrey Figgins is a senior at the University of Washington Bothell majoring in Environmental Studies. Her focus is on environmental law and human rights.
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