In spite of conservative talk radio’s obsession with the myth of “Freeattle,” anyone who’s ever lived outside — or even just found themselves stuck at a downtown bus stop during rush hour — will tell you that basic resources are nowhere to be found.
Water fountains, bathrooms and even safe temperatures — resources that were already precious in Seattle — dried up even further during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as spaces like libraries reopen, folks may be able to meet their basic needs more easily. But June’s hea wave made it clear that providing public bathrooms and water sources still is not a priority for this administration.
Yes, cooling centers were opened (or recommended, though in the case of the mall, they weren’t exactly open or hospitable). But restrooms in public parks remained locked and water fountains remained dry. As the temperature climbed to triple digits last month, the vast majority — 80%, according to a MyNorthwest report — were simply not turned on.
As I’ve noted before, public bathrooms and water fountains aren’t just beneficial for unsheltered folks. “Comfort stations” are mercy for parents looking to change a diaper, runners and walkers, and delivery drivers and bus operators. However, at times when housed people can choose to stay indoors and many companies simply close due to the heat, these locations must continue to serve the people who have nowhere else to go.
In good times, Seattle’s lack of bathrooms and water fountains is an irritant to most and a legitimate problem for some. But at times when the impacts of climate change — impacts that we will almost certainly see become a reality in the coming summers — this negligence is deadly.
What is the city’s rationale for keeping them off? To save a few pennies? Or because the Seattle Parks & Recreation has made it clear that they don’t believe that they’re obligated to provide water to every resident?
To be honest, I’m not sure what to think about a city that eschews its duty to provide necessities like water and restrooms. Humans can’t live without water. Humans must conduct certain bodily functions. Humans need temperatures that are non-lethal. And the city of Seattle hasn’t really kept up with providing these essential functions.
And maybe that’s not the job of the government — but I have to wonder then, if that’s not what the government is for, what, exactly, can we count on them to do?
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and political consultant from Seattle who is currently living in Portland, a city with “bubbler” water fountains that are operational all year and all over the city.
Read more of the July 7-13, 2021 issue.