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…

Coronavirus Update From New York City: April 9, 2020

It’s hard to believe that it has been only three weeks since I started giving weekly updates on my blog on how I’m doing, and how my city (New York City) is doing with the coronavirus pandemic. So much has changed in that time, and so much will likely continue to change. Today’s coronavirus update post will focus on what has changed with me and with my city since last week’s update.

Everyone in my family is still healthy. Sure, some of us struggle with a little bit with allergies, but many people struggle with allergies this time of year. None of us are showing symptoms of the coronavirus, though, so we all count our blessings. While it has been quite jarring to see how just about every aspect of life, from how I interact with people to how I do my professional work, has changed, I remain glad that I am healthy. I do need to make sure to take breaks for the sake of my own mental health though, because both my professional work and my volunteer work is at times very focused on the coronavirus.

With the extra free time available to me during the pandemic, I’m not sure if I have gained any new skills, but I helped build a new website! Long story made short, an organization I volunteer for (Gray Panthers, who are focused on anti-ageism work) partnered with another organization to help build a resource website for seniors in New York City during the coronavirus crisis (which you can find here). I was one of the Gray Panthers who helped put together the website.

The news in New York is very much a mixed bag. Here’s the good, the maybe good, and the bad:

  1. One piece of news is that it appears that hospitalizations for the coronavirus are flat. This is good news because it means hospitalizations are no longer on a sharp rise. At the same time, I’ve heard rumors that the numbers might be misleading because the threshold for taking COVID-19 patients to the hospital is much higher now than it was even days ago. Please note that this is only a rumor I’ve heard, so do not promote this rumor unless you have a reputable source backing you up.
  2. Another piece of news is that it appears most people are taking the social distancing, the wearing of masks, and the suggestions to stay at home as much as possible seriously. Hopefully, people will continue taking all of this seriously. A few people don’t take this seriously, but at least where I am, those people seem to very much be in the minority. Also, since I have readers who might be celebrating Passover now or Easter over the weekend, let me say this: just because it’s a holiday doesn’t mean that we should be relaxing on the social distancing.
  3. In grim news, as of today (April 9th), New York State has over 7,000 deaths confirmed from the coronavirus. To put this into context, nearly 3,000 people died on 9/11…total (spread across multiple states). I am not saying this to lessen the significance of 9/11, but to instead show the magnitude of the crisis where I am. This number is likely to significantly increase in coming days, as New York had a record number of deaths from the coronavirus confirmed today.

So, that’s pretty much it for my update and my city’s update. How are you doing during this coronavirus, and how is your little corner of the world doing?

Coronavirus Update From New York City: March 26, 2020

Last week, there seemed to be some reader interest in my update on how I’m doing, and how my city is doing, with the coronavirus. Given that fact, I will be continuing to post these weekly updates until the coronavirus settles down in New York City.

I, personally, am lucky economically. I heard that over three million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits. I am not one of them, and to the contrary, I am not losing any pay as a result of this crisis. Yes, there are certainly quirks involved with working from home (which I started doing last Monday), especially when your priorities compete with the priorities of other family members working or studying from home. Nevertheless, when I consider the fact that over three million of my fellow Americans are filing for unemployment benefits, I am lucky economically.

I am also lucky health-wise (so far). I’ve had some minor seasonal allergies, but I have never run a fever and have never exhibited the symptoms that come with the coronavirus. Hopefully it stays that way for me and for my entire family.

New York City is not so lucky. My city is at the epicenter of this pandemic. At this point, well over 20,000 cases have been reported in New York City (and that may be low-balling). Granted, some of the reason for the high numbers is because testing has been more widely available in New York City (and New York State as a whole) than most other places. But some of it is because the situation here is genuinely bad. A hospital in the same neighborhood as my alma mater high school reported over a dozen deaths from the coronavirus in 24 hours.[1] Doctors and nurses are getting sick. There is still a grave concern about hospitals in New York City running out of certain medical supplies, including ventilators. The medical system in my area is severely strained. To those who think people are exaggerating how bad this pandemic is at the epicenter, I have two words to say: think again.


[1] https://newyork.cbslocal.com/2020/03/26/coronavirus-elmhurst-hospital-deaths/