Homelessness, Bathrooms, and COVID

A sink, where people need to go to wash their hands after using the bathroom.

TMI time. Or, for those who aren’t into texting: time to give a little too much information (but there’s a point to it…I promise).

A couple of weekends ago, I was heading home from a small gathering of people rooting for my favorite soccer/football team, Norwich City. It was a good time, but there was one problem: I needed a bathroom. However, I couldn’t find one (at least not without getting full table service at a restaurant, which I really didn’t want to do) because many of the places I relied on in the past for public bathrooms wherever I was were closed due to what they call “COVID precautions.” And even places that you think would have an open restroom for customers, such as a Dunkin Donuts with a sign on its door saying that the restroom is available for customers (which I was, because goodness me, I wanted to use a bathroom even if it required getting one or two donuts), were closed due to “COVID precautions.”

However, I had a home where I could eventually use a bathroom and relieve my discomfort. It was an unpleasant and at times uncomfortable ride home, but I had a home to go to where I could use a bathroom.

But some people, unlike me, do not have homes to go to and therefore struggle to find bathrooms because of all the typically public restrooms or customer-only restrooms closed due to “COVID precautions.” And because of that, because of said “precautions,” we are, in many cases, creating potential sanitary issues, not to mention issues of basic human dignity.

Speaking from experience, at the height of the pandemic in New York City, all bathrooms owned by the city’s Parks Department and all bathrooms in libraries were closed.[1] This is a real problem because, as I’ve found myself learning more about homelessness during the pandemic, it is these library and Parks Department bathrooms (along with other public restrooms) that many individuals experiencing homelessness would rely upon to use a bathroom and wash their hands. Without those bathrooms, what does someone do to use the bathroom and wash their hands?

The fact that we’re asking these questions, in New York and in many other places,[2] is troubling under any circumstances, but even more so in the middle of a deadly global pandemic. It’s troubling under any circumstances because the ability to use a bathroom and wash one’s hands has become more of a luxury of having a home and money during the pandemic, when in reality it’s a human necessity and something that is really needed to uphold the dignity of a human being. It’s especially troubling because without the ability to wash one’s hands, gone is also the ability to wash away one’s germs—the last thing we need during a global pandemic. In a way, by taking away access to public restrooms, we might end up increasing the risk of COVID among our most vulnerable.

So why have many bathrooms closed, even though for the homeless the availability of bathrooms is an important COVID precaution?

The sense I get (though I could be wrong) is that it is related to some sort of fear of those cleaning the restrooms catching COVID. I can understand why some people may have that fear. However, I think the fact that COVID cases have stayed low in my home city (New York), even as more restrooms are opening up in restaurants and other places (albeit not as many as there should, especially for the homeless), is a sign that you can have open restrooms, clean them, and keep the spread of the virus slow, all at the same time.

What I propose, then, is that more places with public restrooms open their restrooms, but take the appropriate precautions in keeping the restrooms clean and the cleaning employees COVID-free. As New York’s low COVID case count during the summer shows (we’ll see what the fall brings), it is possible to have open bathrooms and a low level of COVID cases. So, let’s have bathrooms available for people experiencing homelessness. Let’s push for our elected officials to do this. After all, using a restroom and washing one’s hands at any time, but especially during a global pandemic, should not be a luxury, but a human right, a public health issue, and a matter of human decency.

[1] All libraries were closed for a time during the pandemic. And, as of the time I am writing this, most libraries are still closed in New York City.

[2] I hate to say “do a Google search.” But really, please do. The situation has gotten so bad in many places that the Los Angeles Times has a story on strategies for peeing while out (which I can’t read in full because of their paywall). Pew Charitable Trusts was talking about issues with bathroom access in Seattle. And so on…

21 Replies to “Homelessness, Bathrooms, and COVID”

  1. I wonder how much of this is a convenient excuse not to maintain the bathrooms because it’s expensive and time consuming. In my privileged little hamlet in southeast Michigan, the park restrooms have stayed locked I notice even when there’s a sign on the family bathroom doors that says “These Restrooms Are Cleaned Daily”. It’s inconvenient for me, but disastrous for anybody else who can’t just drive a mile to their house and do their business, which I did.
    I totally agree: ‘using a restroom and washing one’s hands at any time, but especially during a global pandemic, should not be a luxury, but a human right, a public health issue, and a matter of human decency.’ We give no regard to “the commons” anymore.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hmmm…it’s definitely possible that it is a convenient excuse not to maintain bathrooms because it’s expensive and time-consuming. And maybe even more so in the case of public restrooms, because lots of states and municipalities are facing severe budgetary shortfalls, and are looking for ways to cut costs. Public health should be the priority, but for some unfortunately, saving money>public health.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Brendan, you’re addressing such an important issue here, one that, as you say, isn’t really on anyone’s radar screen as any more than an unusual but understandable inconvenience until we’re reminded of those in need. I hope many people read this, some of whom might be able to effect change. Btw, is it the Norwich Canaries you root for or another Norwich team? A good friend of mine is originally from there and is a huge Canaries fan. I wasn’t expecting a Norwich football fan from a New Yorker! 😏

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, it isn’t on the radar screens of many. But I hope it does end up on radar screens though. I will certainly try to do that with my own elected officials.

      Yes, it’s the Canaries! 🙂 There are a number of dedicated Norwich fans in NYC, many of whom either come from the Norwich area or studied abroad in Norwich (like me). I mean…considering the number of teams over there in that part of England, who else would I root for? (Certainly not Ipswich Town, that I could say.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, Brendan, for bringing to the public attention something that I bet 99% of the people in this country never give a second thought to … how the homeless survive. I’m ashamed to admit that even I, who consider myself to be an advocate for the poor and the homeless, didn’t think of the effect of the pandemic restrictions and how they would affect the ability of the homeless to have access to a bathroom.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. It is tough that through this ordeal people have not given as much thought to the homeless population as they have the fact that they have to wear a mask in public. You are very right it is just being human, we seem to have lost our humanity.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yep. Using a bathroom and washing hands is just part of being a human being, and it is so important that we remember that homeless human beings are also human beings with many of the same basic needs that we do.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I’ve thought about this frequently. Even while traveling this summer, we encountered this problem. We drove through a restaurant that didn’t have its restrooms open. It was a real challenge to find a place that did have one open, and when we did, it was really crowded and unsafe. I can’t imagine how difficult the pandemic has been for those who are homeless and rely on public restrooms to relieve themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, it’s something that continues to be on my mind too. I came home yesterday from travels over the weekend (taking my younger brother back to college), and one thing that’s continuing to strike me is the vastly limited availability of bathrooms, especially for those who are homeless.

      Liked by 1 person

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