Gail Burton/AP

Homeless America: ‘Everyone should be able to pee for free with dignity’

UN says 2.5 billion lack toilets globally, and activists say many homeless in the US struggle to find restrooms

More than 2.5 billion people around the world do not have access to toilets, the United Nations said Friday, mainly highlighting it as a problem for developing countries. But for many homeless Americans, finding a clean restroom can also be a challenge.

“This, for me, is one of the most drastic and sad examples of the loss of dignity: allowing (people) to practice open defecation,” U.N. deputy secretary general Jan Eliasson told the Guardian in comments that come as the U.N. prepares a new set of international development goals.

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In the U.S., homeless-rights advocates say that in most cities it is difficult to find public toilets — making sanitation an issue that homeless people face on a daily basis.

“Everybody should be able to pee for free with dignity regardless of your income,” Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless, told Al Jazeera.

Even if there are public bathrooms, many are not open around the clock, leaving the homeless with no other option but to go in public areas — an act that is criminalized in most cities. Critics say such policies unfairly punish homeless people for life-sustaining actions.

“They often have to rely on bus terminals, train stations and restaurants where they are often kicked out because they are not paying customers,” Stoops said. He added that many shelters are only open at night, leaving the homeless few options for restrooms during the day.

Ray Lyall, the self-described “most homeless” member of nonprofit advocacy organization Denver Homeless Out Loud, said he had recently completed a survey of public toilets in the Colorado city.

“There’s literally 10 restrooms that you can actually use without anybody saying anything to you,” Lyall said. “Most of those are only open during their hours of operation, so there are only two that are open 24/7. And one of those are porta-potties, and they don’t clean them near enough.”

The public toilet report was delivered to Denver’s city council, and Lyall said some of its members have expressed interest in building self-cleaning restrooms that can be accessed at any hour of the day.

“We should have the right to be able to go somewhere, no matter what time of day, and go to the bathroom in a clean place,” Lyall said. “I realize that probably 20 percent of homeless people are drug addicts, but there’s still 80 percent that aren’t.”

Stoops recommends various solutions, including having religious institutions or other organizations that serve the homeless make their facilities available whenever needed. He also said that while many shelters close during the day, there is usually someone on the administrative staff inside.

Restrooms in all businesses should be open to anyone who needs them, Stoops said.

Another possible solution, he said, is to bring back restroom attendants, who were common in the 1950s and 60s. The practice could help keep public facilities clean and safe, and could even give homeless people a source of income.

“Nobody, not even homeless folks, want to have to go to the bathroom in public,” he said.

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