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Can the District find profit in public toilets?
Herbert (not his real name), a District homeless man, had to go to the bathroom. So he walked from the benches at Dupont Circle, where he usually spends his time, across the street to the Starbucks at 1501 Connecticut Ave. NW.
The manager spotted him as soon as he walked in, Herbert says, and told him that the restrooms were for customers only. Angry, humiliated, and without any money, a desperate Herbert walked to the busy patio area outside and urinated.
Herbert’s actions aren’t what most homeless men and women do when denied the use of a bathroom, and many cafe and restaurant employees don’t react this way when homeless people try to enter their restrooms. But the stench of urine emanating from many District alleyways and parks signals a chronic nuisance, if not a public health hazard.
The call of nature must be heeded by everyone, yet the District does not provide public toilets, either in areas where its homeless denizens gather or in areas frequented mainly by tourists. Local businesses differ on their willingness to assume the burden of providing this public service.
David Wheeler, a manager at Wrap Works at 1601 Connecticut Ave. NW, says that his restaurant’s open-door policy means that the restrooms are often abused. “I don’t know if they’re using it for a bathing area or what they’re using it for,” he says. “It’s usually a mess. They use the bathroom for everything. They even shoot up in it.”
Wrap Works isn’t discontinuing its open policy, however. “I think it would be difficult to control who uses the bathroom and who doesn’t,” observes Wheeler. “Plus, I’m against signs that say, ‘For Customers Only.’”
The Cyber Stop Cafe, at 1513 17th St. NW, does not allow the homeless to use its bathrooms, says cashier Roxanne McMillan. “It’s for customers only,” she says. “It’s enforced carefully, so you don’t offend anyone.” Asked how she differentiates between the homeless and others, McMillan says that cash is the key. “A lot of people look homeless, but they’re not,” she says. “They’re the ones that can afford to buy something.”
Raymond Brown, a homeless man who sometimes panhandles in the Dupont Circle area, says that he is often denied use of the restrooms in local businesses. “The restaurants and places like that frown on that because you didn’t buy anything, especially the upscale ones. McDonald’s and KFC, they’re the ones that let you do that.”
So where are the public toilets that might ease the burdens on citizens and businesses?
The last time the District had a network of public toilets was 40 years ago. They were removed because they were believed to be a health threat. At the moment, says Robert Henry, acting public-information officer for the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, there are no plans afoot to reintroduce public facilities.
“It hasn’t been a major issue,” says Henry. “There haven’t been many complaints about the homeless.”
In one city, the public-restroom conundrum is being solved without any cash outlay from public coffers. Los Angeles recently approved the installation of 150 new public toilets, many of them downtown, where that city’s homeless congregate.
In fact, Los Angeles will make money from its deal with the Franco-American consortium Infinity Decaux LLC. Under a 20-year contract, Infinity will install the freestanding toilets at no cost to the city. Advertising modules placed inside each toilet are expected to generate $750 million over that same period, with the city slated to receive either $150 million or 20 percent of the revenue, whichever is greater. The French part of the consortium, JC Decaux, has created such “street furniture” in San Francisco and numerous European cities.
Infinity’s high-tech toilets are designed to be relatively maintenance-free. After each use, automated doors close and a quick-drying disinfectant sprays over the toilet, the fixtures, and the floor to reduce the spread of germs and disease. To decrease the threat that the toilets could be used for crime, the automatic doors periodically open when the device is not in use. The toilets, which will cost a quarter to use, will be free to the homeless, who will receive tokens distributed by various organizations in the city.
Henry says that the contract that Los Angeles signed with the public-toilet manufacturer is appealing. “It hasn’t yet registered on our radar screen,” he says. “But if homes and businesses started expressing concern about it, we’d do something about it.”
In Los Angeles, the city’s 12 councilmembers voted against the deal with Infinity, arguing that even high-tech toilets would be magnets for prostitutes, drug dealers, and graffiti. Such concerns are echoed by some District observers, who wonder whether the people who’d be most served by public restroomsthe homeless and local businessescould be persuaded to support them.
David Cardile, a caseworker at Friendship Place in Northwest D.C., which provides services for the homeless, observes that the businesses whose conflicts over restrooms might be eased by public facilities still could be a major obstacle. “Businesses probably wouldn’t want them,” he says. “They’d probably be afraid that they’re going to be areas of minitrouble. People would congregate there for drug sales. Businesses wouldn’t want to be associated with that.”
Even Herbert, who admits that he finds it humiliating to urinate in public, says that if the District did provide public toilets, he would steer clear. “I’d be against them,” he says. “A lot of people would abuse them. They’d have sex in them and do drugs in them. I wouldn’t use them.” CP