In a COVID winter, it’s harder than ever to find a public bathroom in Boston. What’s the city doing about it?
Anyone who has spent time in downtown Boston can likely relate to the struggle of needing a bathroom and having no clue where to find relief.
The situation is worse for the homeless, especially since COVID-19 closed most of the few public restrooms in and around Boston Common. The remaining options include finding a place out of sight of authorities and risking a public lewdness charge, managing to hold it in long enough to survive a 15-minute train ride, or wetting oneself.
There are some remaining options when downtown during a bathroom emergency, and they are all awful.
“The homeless have an unfair disadvantage,” said Chris, who has faced chronic homelessness since he was a teenager. Chris declined to give his last name.
Although Chris currently has housing, there have been nights he spent on the Common. Aside from knowing the struggle of needing a restroom while downtown, he said he has seen how the lack of facilities can be a problem for everyone.
“Businesses are seeing people piss and shit all over the place,” he said.
Anthony Dokoupil, a Cambridge retiree who frequents the Common, said that it is easy to see the signs of drug use and human waste that come from a lack of legitimate facilities.
“They pee and crap in the bushes because they have no other place to do it,” he said. “It’s an obvious problem with a solution. It’s going to take taxpayers who are tired of seeing people crapping around the corner or in between cars.”
The City of Boston’s 311 service call data for 2019 and 2020 do not show an increase in requests for the removal of feces in the city, but several feces-related service requests included the note that the Department of Public Works “does not remove human waste.”
While some property owners are dealing with waste, people who are forced to go to the bathroom outside have to make sure they avoid the police while they squat.
“If you’re caught urinating in public, you can be arrested and labeled a sex offender,” Maria Termini said. Termini volunteers with the Common Art program, which operates out of Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street and trains homeless or low-income individuals in art. Through her work, Termini has met with numerous people that struggle to find restrooms. Despite numerous phone calls and emails, she said that she has struggled to get any action out of City Hall.
“The city has done nothing and seems pretty unresponsive,” Termini said. “They refuse to respond to this humanitarian crisis where people really need them. We’re just ignoring this problem and it’s getting worse and worse.”
Termini wrote letters to the mayor’s office as well as to Parks and Recreation Commissioner Ryan Woods. She suggested that something as simple as a few porta-potties would vastly improve the situation, but Woods rejected the idea out of concern for safety and needle-drug use and because the city would then have to provide staffing to monitor and clean the bathrooms, according to an email exchange that Termini provided to DigBoston.
Termini said she obtained a quote from a Porta-potty company for four bathrooms and one hand sanitizer station for under $2,000 a month, but Woods remained unwilling.
“Other cities have porta-potties with supervision, why not Boston?” Termini said. “It’s not an easy solution, but it’s not rocket science and the city can do that.”
Just a few years ago, there was a pay toilet available to the public in front of the entrance to the Copley Branch Library. Residents quickly turned against the bathroom as a magnet for needle drugs.
“It’s been a chronic problem forever,” said Elliot Laffer, chair of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay. “Boston has never been a particularly friendly place for people that need a bathroom. It’s a problem that’s hard to solve.”
Given the failure to maintain the previous pay toilet, Laffer said the challenge would be to find a way to keep it maintained and clean—particularly amid the pandemic—and to ensure safety: “It’s going to cost money to solve it and I’m not sure where the money comes from.”
The City of Boston maintains an interactive website that shows public restrooms around town. In the Back Bay, that list includes one facility in the Common and restrooms in two fire stations and the library, most of which are currently closed due to COVID-19. The lone exception is the bathrooms at the Frog Pond, which are currently under rent to the Boston Skating Club. That restroom has opened for limited hours during the day in recent weeks.
The City of Boston established two “comfort stations” in response to COVID closures earlier this year—one in a parking lot adjacent to 1010 Mass Ave, and another at 112 Southampton St., although the 1010 Mass Ave station was closed in September due to construction, according to a spokesperson for Mayor Marty Walsh. The remaining station is located close to the intersection of Melnea Cass Ave and Mass Ave, which is a hub for addicts and addiction services, but it is hardly within walking distance of the Common. The remaining location has bathrooms and hand washing stations, as well as recovery coaches and nurses.
The spokesperson failed to respond to an email follow up about whether or not there were any plans to install any more stations in the city.
A lack of bathroom access is not a problem exclusive to Boston. On the other side of the country, San Francisco has been setting an example in addressing the bathroom problem for two decades.
About 20 years ago, San Francisco worked out a deal with advertising company JCDecaux to sponsor public restrooms. JCDecauex was actually the sponsor for the Back Bay’s ill-fated pay toilet a few years ago, but in the Bay area the company found more success, according to Beth Rubenstein, deputy director of policy with the San Francisco Department of Work.
“The program actually has a long history and I think that’s allowed us to respond to COVID-19,” Rubenstein said.
Almost 10 years ago, there was growing concern about safety and drug use in San Francisco’s public toilets. The city was already sponsoring a job training program for formerly incarcerated individuals, so it had a staffing source for a monitoring program. The end result was a new plan for a series of mobile “Pit Stop” bathroom stations.
If Boston officials needed an example of a successful solution, in 2017, San Francisco’s Pit Stop program was honored by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. But while the Hub still remains one of the most difficult places to pee in the country, Miami, Denver, Sacramento, and Los Angeles have all followed San Francisco’s lead and created their own Pit Stop program.
With that infrastructure in place, it was easy for San Francisco to roll out additional mobile bathroom stations amid the pandemic. Unlike Boston’s old contract, San Francisco’s deal with JCDecaux calls for the advertising company to cover the staffing costs to monitor and maintain the public bathrooms. Grants for nonprofits cover the cost for staffing at the newer mobile stations.
“The staffing has made all the difference,” Rubenstein said. “It doesn’t make sense to have the infrastructure if you don’t have the monitoring.”
This article was published in DigBoston.
Zack is a veteran reporter. He writes for DigBoston and VICE, and formerly reported for the Boston Courant and Bulletin Newspapers.