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…