The Need for Public Restrooms: One Plight of the Homeless

Samson Howard
Special to Spare Change News

Have you ever seen a sign that says, “Bathrooms for patrons only. Do not even ask!” If you are homeless you probably have. So what does one do? Relief is essential and public urination is a criminal offense. In this matter, dogs have more rights than human beings have. Such a law has left many otherwise law-abiding persons with a CORI that interferes with their ability to get a job, among other things.

This article takes as its hypothesis that the law in the United States is to a large extent based on British Common Law, which in turn is based on Judeo-Christian Biblical Law. Biblical precedents—as obscure as they may be—will be cited. Then I will show how the problem of needing more public restrooms is universal and applies to more people than just the homeless. Lastly, I will present two possible solutions.

Let’s look at some Biblical references to the established precedent for public urination. One of the mitzvoth or laws of Moses states, “Outside the camp you shall have a place set aside to be used as a latrine. You shall also keep a trowel in your equipment and with it, when you go outside to ease nature, you shall first dig a hole and afterward cover up your excrement.” (Deuteronomy 23:13-14–The New American Bible) The existence of a public latrine and a dispensation for easing nature when outside were allowed by law. Secondly, David’s men once protected the sheep and goats of a scoundrel by the name of Nabal. When Nabal refused to offer David’s men sustenance in return for their service, his wife brought them sustenance. David said, “…as sure as the LORD, the God of Israel, lives—who has kept me from harming you—had you not come quickly to meet me, not a single male (literally, ‘one who pees against a wall’) of Nabal’s line would have been left by daybreak.” (1 Samuel, 25:34, JPS Translation—Second Edition) The Hebrew idiom, “one who pees against a wall”, was supposedly used as an expression of contempt for a group of men or dogs who were soon to be killed ( Therefore, we can assume that public urination was frowned upon by the Israelites.

What about our modern needs for public urinals? Is the problem widespread? Consider the human plumbing problems which have gotten a lot of coverage recently–a very real medical issue. The medical diagnosis for one is “frequent urination”, which manifests in such things as being unable to urinate, having a pressing urge, needing to plan one’s day around availability of restrooms and being unable to take long trips. Suffice it to say that this is not just a plight of the homeless. For example, I take medication for incontinence, but it doesn’t completely resolve my issue. As a result, I keep myself partially dehydrated.

Let us look at two solutions. A number of years ago, Thomas Menino set up a pilot restroom experiment behind city hall in Boston. Entrance required 25 cents. Why did it fail? Would two people enter to avoid paying? Did people follow one another and prop the door open? I am sure there were problems I cannot even imagine. After about a year, the restroom was disassembled. This brings me to one of the two possible solutions. It was not so long ago that one could approach someone on the street or go into a store and ask, “Where is the nearest telephone booth?” In this case, a person could ask for the nearest public toilet. Imagine metal cylindrical booths placed at convenient spots around Cambridge and Boston that required 25 cents or 50 cents to enter. They would need to be small enough so that only one person could enter. Between 2:00 AM and 6:00 AM, what we used to call “Honey-sucking” trucks could maintain them.

An alternate solution would be to reduce the criminal nature of the penalty to a civil offense. A CORI would not then follow the homeless around. For example, when the law was changed for the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, it reduced court costs. It also made something that was not universally enforced a civil offense punishable by fine.

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