It’s Not Enough to Build More Housing. We Also Need to Build More Bathrooms.

Photo by Jahongir Ismoilov on Unsplash

by Divya Shiv

Some say a good man is hard to find. I would make one minor adjustment: a good bathroom is hard to find.

You may laugh, but for something so quintessentially human, it is surprising how difficult it can be to find a decent public bathroom in the Bay Area. Many of us have shelled out $3 for a coffee just to relieve ourselves, an act of privilege we may take for granted. However, for unhoused individuals with no private bathroom of their own, these $3 coffees add up, monetarily punishing these individuals simply because there are few free alternatives.

Moreover, the number of unhoused individuals is not decreasing anytime soon. In fact, many Bay Area counties have experienced steep increases in their number of unhoused residents in the last few years. For example, although San Jose’s homeless population has increased by 42 percent in the last two years, I was only able to find a smattering of 10 to 12 public bathrooms through google maps, since San Jose does not maintain a comprehensive list of public restrooms. Sadly, many Bay Area cities resemble San Jose in their paucity of public bathrooms.

The lack of public bathrooms in the Bay Area is both unjust and unsafe. For those who believe that housing is a human right, it must also be a right to safely and cleanly use a toilet without having to pay or walk miles to find a public one.

In addition, the lack of public bathrooms can create the potential for criminalizing homelessness around citations of public indecency. In my previous role as a house justice organizer in Seattle, I helped host a day-long listening session to brainstorm policy solutions with people who had experienced housing instability and homelessness. To my surprise, the most popular idea was a statewide ban on indecent exposure charges for unhoused individuals who had no choice but to relieve themselves outside.

In California, indecent exposure is categorized as a misdemeanor that may require individuals to register as a sex offender, decreasing an individual’s likelihood for attaining employment or housing. By building public restrooms, cities in the Bay Area would provide a free alternative to stave off the fears and effects of these public indecency charges.

Furthermore, the lack of public bathrooms is also a public health concern. This is particularly relevant now, as cities in the Bay Area are seeing an uptick in cases of COVID-19.  Although officials have advised all individuals to continuously wash their hands, there are few places in the Bay Area for unhoused residents to do so, creating a heightened risk of illness amongst those unhoused. 

Another public health concern surrounds the issue of human matter in public spaces, an issue that used to impact the city of San Francisco the most after 10pm when the city’s public bathrooms closed. San Francisco’s solution? 24/7 self-cleaning public bathrooms.

As of now, there are 25 self-cleaning bathroom sites throughout San Francisco, positioned close to areas of high need. This program – which not only provides a toilet, but also running water, soap, and hand towels – has been recognized by the Harvard Kennedy School for its innovation. Berkeley is also exploring an expansion of public bathrooms, and the city is attempting to provide one toilet per 15 to 25 unhoused individuals.

To be sure, other Bay Area cities may be deterred from pursuing similar projects due to the possibility of high implementation costs. However, the program in San Francisco operates at no cost to the city. Instead, San Francisco contracts out these public bathrooms and, in exchange for the toilets, the city allows the contractor to install advertising and newspaper kiosk stands on its sidewalks. Currently, there are 70 kiosks around San Francisco that support this program.

Given the ease with which cities can install public bathrooms, help their unhoused residents and improve public health outcomes, Bay Area cities must act now to provide free, safe, and clean bathrooms to its residents.

In other words, a good bathroom should not be hard to find.

Divya Shiv is a first-year MPP student at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.