The Potty Problem

Why Does No One Give a Crap About Seattle's Public Restrooms?

Our city's bathroom impasse should be recognized for what it is: a public health crisis.

By Sam Jones August 27, 2019

We all use the bathroom. So why has the Seattle public restroom dilemma been largely ignored?

“Missing toilet seat and lid,” “floor completely covered in debris,” “syringe parts in toilet”—these are just a few of the observed health and safety issues with our city-funded, always-open public restrooms.

The worst part? There are only six of them. In all of Seattle.

This conversation isn’t new—tourists complain about Pike Place Market’s facilities, fecal matter often litters our sidewalks, and city-wide audits consistently find gaps in prioritizing hygiene for our homeless population.

Though Seattle's homelessness crisis has rightfully captured the city's attention, the extent of our public restroom problem has been massively underestimated. In the past three years, point-in-time counts have hovered above 11,000 experiencing homelessness—and with such a magnitude of unhoused folks comes stigma. It is, unfortunately, not particularly shocking that a problem so acutely intertwined with resentment toward the houseless has gone largely ignored.

That's not to say the issue of where "to go" has been entirely neglected: Both Ballard and the University District have toyed with the possibility of importing portable restrooms. In fact, Ballard has secured a location for a Portland Loo, a movable restroom similar to a Porta Potty constructed for this exact purpose. While currently on backorder, construction started at Ballard Commons to make room for the Portland Loo in June, with a September anticipated open date, according to Rachel Schulkin at Seattle Parks and Recreation.

The follow-through on the University District’s U-Loo project, however, has been lackluster. Complicated by disagreeable maintenance fees, and thus a city budget rejection, advocacy from U District Mobility has been met with dead air.

Whether drug use, a lack of cleanliness, or maintenance costs is what drives voters and city legislators away from fully addressing the issue, our public bathroom impasse has gone on far too long—and one Portland Loo in Ballard won't solve it.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees holds a sanitation standard of at least one toilet for every 20 persons. According to city auditor David Jones, if we were to apply that same metric here, we would need approximately 224 toilets to meet the needs of roughly 4,000 consistently unsheltered Seattleites. (Adding those 218 restrooms would cost us a whole lot—a 2006 push for five automated toilets resulted in a $5 million price tag.)

Some think that reframing the issue could help motivate action. City council members like Teresa Mosqueda and Sally Bagshaw have made an effort to position restroom inaccessibility as a general public health issue, rather than simply a calamity facing our unsheltered population. Still, no tangible resolutions have been reached.

“We hear daily from constituents who are concerned about people not having access to facilities,” Mosqueda says. “Obviously, there are people who are either self-medicating, or they're in tough situations and have taken advantage of these bathrooms. But that shouldn't be a reason for us to shut down facilities; that should be a reason for us to reevaluate.”

According to Mosqueda, the debate over installing more public restrooms isn’t a controversial one, but rather a matter of allocating proper funding, and following through with projects—hurdles and all—rather than abandoning them when drug use, squatting, and uncleanliness arise.

“If people are feeling like the last time we tried to do this in Seattle we didn't [succeed], that's a lesson learned,” says Mosqueda. “Let’s staff these facilities. Let's make sure that they're clean; that our parks employees are cared for and that there's social service and case management services available in these areas.”

While the future of Seattle’s potty problem is hazy, public comfort stations are imperative to the health of our city’s inhabitants—housed, unhoused, and tourists alike.

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