No Place to Go: The Urgent Need for Public Bathrooms

public bathrooms
Explore the often-neglected battle for basic dignity endured by the homeless community and their urgent requirement for accessible bathroom facilities. We need practical solutions to tackle this pressing societal challenge.

A Homeless Person’s Perspective on the Overlooked Struggle for Public Bathrooms and Basic Dignity

Bathrooms are something housed people take for granted every day. Most people hardly give a second thought to their availability and convenience. Yet, for those experiencing homelessness, access to bathrooms is a critical and often insurmountable challenge. Bathrooms are weaponized by those advocating for the criminalization of homelessness, citing public safety rather than addressing the underlying humanitarian crisis.

Discussing bathroom access is uncomfortable for many, including myself. It feels unpleasant to even bring up the topic, but it is a harsh reality we cannot ignore. Excretion is a basic biological need for all living creatures. For those of us on the autism spectrum, bathrooms present an additional layer of difficulty. Many of us, myself included, find it particularly horrifying to share a bathroom with others. Now, imagine the horror for someone like me when public bathrooms are the only option—and that’s if you can find one that is open and accessible.

Restricted Bathroom Access Hurts Homeless People

For most homeless people, regular access to a bathroom is a constant struggle. Public restrooms are difficult to find in many cities, including Manhattan and the other boroughs of New York City. Even a housed, pregnant woman is often compelled to purchase something just to use a bathroom in a store or restaurant. Signs proclaiming “bathrooms for customers only” are common, emphasizing the exclusion faced by many.

I remember meeting a woman from Europe a few years ago who was shocked by this practice. Where she was from, it was a given that human beings need access to bathrooms. She told me that in her country, one could walk into a bar, pub, tavern, or restaurant and use the facilities without any hassle. Imagine that!

Unfortunately, I’ve heard that some European cities have recently adopted this horrible American model. I can’t say for certain if this is happening worldwide, but it seems likely that if this practice is entrenched here, it could spread elsewhere.

This shift toward restricting bathroom access underscores a troubling trend: prioritizing profit over basic human needs. It is a stark reminder of how far we need to go to ensure that everyone, regardless of their housing status, can maintain their dignity and health.

Why Are There So Few Public Bathrooms?

Considering that bathroom access is a fundamental need for all people, you would think cities would prioritize installing public restrooms. Instead, many cities provide none, forcing people to relieve themselves in streets or bushes. How can a society create a situation where people have no facilities but then penalize them with tickets for using a bush? How is that fair?

Facilities are virtually nonexistent for homeless individuals in encampments. Public parks often lack bathrooms; when they do have them, they are usually locked at night. If a porta-potty is available, it’s typically not serviced regularly, making it nauseating to use, especially in the summer heat. So, where are people supposed to go?

It can be a bit easier for those of us living in vehicles. We can drive to places with bathrooms. The spots we choose to park are often near accessible restrooms. In my area, I know all the best places, especially those with single-person bathrooms that can be locked. These are great for washing up, including washing my hair and doing laundry in the sink. I carry my laundry items in a shopping bag and hang them to dry in the van, using a portable fan to speed up the process. Knowing where 24-hour bathrooms are located is crucial for maintaining basic hygiene.

Public bathroom access is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. By ignoring this need, cities neglect the dignity and health of their most vulnerable residents. It’s time for a change that prioritizes compassion and practicality.

Access to Bathrooms Is Essential for Health, Safety and Dignity

Many homeless people live out in the open, in tents, or on the streets. They lack the resources that vehicle dwellers might have to keep themselves and their clothes clean. Sadly, this often makes them more visibly identifiable as homeless. Critics argue for criminalizing those who are forced to defecate on the streets, but the real issue is that no one should be living on the streets in the first place because housing is out of reach.

Universal access to bathrooms is a fundamental human right, and it applies to everyone, including the housed pregnant woman I mentioned earlier. Instead of criminalizing those with no choice, society should focus on ensuring everyone has access to housing and hygiene facilities.

No one should be denied the dignity of a clean, safe place to relieve themselves. It’s time to shift the conversation from punishment to compassion and practical solutions.

History of Public Bathrooms

If you’re curious about the history of public bathrooms, you can read about it on Wikipedia here. Not surprisingly, ancient Rome had public bathrooms, though they were extremely public and lacked privacy. The thought of using a bathroom in front of others is appalling to me, but even ancient societies understood the necessity of having facilities away from home.

Humans didn’t fully grasp the importance of public bathrooms until they understood hygiene and disease control. It’s shocking that now, in 2024, we seem to be regressing. It feels positively medieval not to provide bathrooms and force people to relieve themselves on the streets. During the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, and even the Renaissance, people would go to the bathroom anywhere, much like horses and farm animals. Blaming modern individuals for this necessity when we fail to provide proper facilities is absolutely horrific.

In the 1970s, there were 50,000 coin-operated public restrooms in the U.S., but they were eliminated by 1980, and no public facilities replaced them. According to a 2021 study cited in the Wikipedia article, the United States now has just eight public toilets for every 100,000 people, tying us with Botswana in terms of access to toilet facilities. This means that we are on par with a third-world country regarding bathroom access.

Instead of addressing this glaring deficiency, society often blames the victims and even uses this lack of facilities to justify criminalizing homelessness and pushing for internment camps.

Public Bathrooms Matter for Everyone

You never know what the future holds. Before you choose to oppose public bathrooms for people experiencing homelessness, consider this: tens of thousands of people have been priced out of housing in recent years and, to their shock, have found themselves homeless. If that happened to you, where would you go to the bathroom?

Supporting public bathrooms is not just about helping others; it’s about recognizing that anyone could find themselves in a situation where basic facilities are out of reach. Public bathrooms are a fundamental necessity, ensuring dignity and hygiene for all, regardless of their living situation.

Homeless Loki

Homeless Loki


Homeless Loki is a disabled homeless person also on the autism spectrum currently homeless in upstate New York

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