Brianne Nadeau
Brianne Nadeau Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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With homelessness in the District at the highest rate of 32 major U.S. cities, and having increased 14 percent in 2016 over the year before, a new proposal floated today could help alleviate the burdens of people without housing.

Ward 1 D.C. councilmember and newly minted Human Services Committee Chair Brianne Nadeau introduced a bill during the council’s first legislative session of the year that would establish a task force to study creating public restrooms to relieve needy residents. Although the measure is in large part intended to benefit the homeless—roughly 8,350 were counted last year—Nadeau says more public bathrooms could also help pregnant women, the elderly, and people with disabilities. She says major cities in Europe and Asia are models.

“This bill will create a thoughtful plan that helps our most vulnerable population,” the councilmember says.

As drafted, such a task force would consist of D.C. health, safety, and other officials as well as representatives from homeless services, urban planning, and civic organizations. Membership would be uncompensated, and the group would look at ways to “provide restroom facilities for free or for a nominal cost at all hours,” while also “incentiviz[ing] businesses to keep their restrooms open to the public.” It would recommend specific locations. 

It’s unclear how much an expanded public bathroom system would cost, though the task force would take up that issue too, including maintenance. But it’s something homeless advocates have long championed. In 2015, then-At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange proposed piloting a “mobile hygiene unit” to serve the homelessness, in which city-owned buses would furnish hot showers, toilets, and hygiene products. (The measure didn’t go anywhere, and Orange now heads the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.) Earlier that year, the People for Fairness Coalition found that only a handful of restrooms downtown were regularly accessible.

The annual “point-in-time” count of the District’s homeless population is scheduled to happen later this month.