The potty dance. You know–that little wiggle that toddlers start to do when they have to use the bathroom. They swear they don’t have to go, but their body language says otherwise.
We’ve all been there. Maybe you were on a road trip in South Dakota and there were no rest stops or gas stations for a lot longer than you expected. Maybe you live in a household with only one bathroom, and the whole family suddenly decided they all need it right now. Maybe you’re really hydrated, but stuck in a conversation at the moment.
For many of us, thinking about how or where we’ll have access to a bathroom isn’t a major concern. We may have those moments where we unexpectedly find ourselves without one, but for the majority of the time it's not a problem.
But how would that change if you didn’t have a bathroom at home? Or if you didn’t have a home at all?
For unhoused people, the lack of available bathrooms is a pressing issue. The National Institute of Health documents how the number of public bathrooms in the United States has dramatically decreased in the last decade. This reduces unhoused people’s ability to use the bathroom, which Harvard Civil Liberty Law Review names as a human right.
Access to restrooms is critical to health, safety, and dignity. Without restrooms, people risk health complications like disease. Additionally, many people use bathrooms to privately manage existing health conditions, such as insulin injection. Dignity is also at risk when public restrooms are not available, as people lack privacy and hygiene products when going to the bathroom outside.
In DC, access to public restrooms is particularly dire. Throughout the entire city, the People for Fairness Coalition found only seven restrooms that are clean, safe, and open 24/7 to the public. They found that the most commonly available restrooms are often found within businesses, which have the right to deny the use of the bathroom if you don’t make a purchase and which are not open 24/7. The fact that most restrooms are within businesses became especially clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, when businesses shut down.
This issue drew some attention when delivery drivers–a service heavily utilized during the pandemic–had no place to use the restroom during their work day. As a result of this attention, New York City is requiring restaurants to allow app-based food delivery drivers to their bathrooms.
While this is certainly a success to celebrate, but it is by no means the end of the battle for restroom accessibility. This is beyond a homeless issue or a delivery driver issue. Everyone needs access to clean, safe bathrooms wherever they go. Certain populations require special attention, such as pregnant people, menstruating people, unhoused people, delivery drivers, elderly people, people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and more. As a result, there must be a strong investment in public restrooms throughout the United States to serve this undeniable need.
So, why is there a lack of public restrooms in the first place? Public restrooms have always been an issue, from the early 1900’s when a lack of women’s restrooms prevented women from joining the public sphere to today’s debates about transgender rights and bathrooms. Policing bathrooms is a way of policing acceptance in society. If you don’t have access to a bathroom in public areas, you’re more likely to not enter those areas to begin with. In the 1960s and 70s many public restrooms were closed because of their reputation for being unsanitary, dangerous, and costly to maintain. They were never reopened or replaced, sending the message to those that utilized them that they were no longer welcome in those areas.
Fortunately, DC is investing in public facilities. As part of the Public Restroom Facilities Installation and Promotion Act of 2018, the city is installing two pilot public restrooms in areas with high numbers of incidents of public urination and defecation.
Thrive DC celebrates this initiative that demonstrates DC’s investment in public health and safety. Thrive DC joins in this effort by providing our clients with our bathroom facilities, as well as laundry and shower rooms with free hygiene products.
We call on the DC government to continue these efforts, and for other cities to follow DC’s lead. As for you, reader, what can you do to help? You can support Thrive by volunteering, donating, or following us on social media to help us keep our facilities open to our clients. You can also celebrate and send your thanks to the DC initiatives to open public restrooms. And, next time you get caught in an unexpected bind and have to do a little potty dance yourself, you can take a moment to appreciate why bathroom accessibility is so important.