What Did You Just Say?

Recently, a discussion about bathrooms at Peace House Community took a strange turn. I and several community members were talking about the problem we have with individuals camping out in the bathrooms. We have two bathrooms and we serve about 120 members a day, so we need everyone to get in and out quickly. The discussion migrated to the lack of public bathrooms in general. One of the members said that, in all of downtown Minneapolis, the only bathrooms that homeless individuals can easily access are at the library and the hospital. All the other buildings and stores prevent non-customers from using their facilities. There are undoubtedly a variety of reasons behind this, from prejudice to drug use to the inconvenience of cleaning up after someone tries to take a shower in a sink. 

As we discussed the situation, someone said, “Yeah, there are just a few people who ruin it for the rest of us.” She meant that when a few people abuse a privilege, everyone risks losing that privilege. I’m sure we’ve all experience a similar situation at some point. One kid acts up in class so the whole class has to stay in during recess. One customer is rude to a waiter so the restaurant manager tells everyone at the table to leave. We all understood what she was saying.

In this case, though, there was more to the comment. It took a few moments for me to realize how surreal her statement was. The “it” she was referring to was homelessness. How do you ruin homelessness? It’s not like homelessness is a benign situation that people tolerate or even enjoy. How do you take daily harassment, marginalization, poverty, hunger, poor health, filth, and the possibility of dying of heat stroke because you have to walk miles in 90 degree weather to meet your basic needs, and make it worse? Well, taking away public bathrooms is a pretty good strategy, I guess.

Now, I know that the places that have closed off their bathrooms aren’t trying to be mean. I understand why they have taken the action they have, but I also know the consequences of their decisions. It turns out to be easy to take someone’s bad day and make it so much worse. If someone is down, take away one of their most basic needs.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Years ago, my hometown of Calgary renovated a public green space near the city’s largest homeless shelter, installing lawn chairs and public bathrooms. A few months later the city removed all the chairs and locked all the bathrooms unless there was a festival or concert scheduled. The city explained that “the facilities were not being used as envisioned” and that this was creating problems. The problem: people from the shelter, who had to leave the building at 7:00 a.m. and couldn’t return for 12 hours, were sleeping in the bathrooms and on the chairs. Imagine being in such a dire situation that sleeping on the floor of a public bathroom is the safest, best option you have, and then someone decide they can’t accept this situation because it is inconvenient for them.

We have no simple solution to homeless, but that doesn’t mean we should accept it, because simple solutions, like taking away bathroom privileges, really don’t work.

by Marti Maltby, Director Peace House Community – A Place to Belong

This article originally appeared in “The Alley,” the newspaper for the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.