Public Restrooms are Fundamental to Human Dignity and Health

Testimony of Kate Coventry, Deputy Director of Legislative Strategy, at the DC Council Budget Oversight Roundtable on the Department of General Services, April 6, 2023

Chairperson Lewis George and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Kate Coventry, and I am the Deputy Director of Legislative Strategy at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI). DCFPI is a non-profit organization that shapes racially-just tax, budget, and policy decisions by centering Black and brown communities in our research and analysis, community partnerships, and advocacy efforts to advance an antiracist, equitable future.

DCFPI is here today to ask the DC Council to restore the funding to building standalone public restrooms that the mayor removed in her proposed fiscal year (FY) 2024 budget. Public restrooms promote racial and economic equity, as a local study found that businesses were more likely to deny access to a restroom to Black non-customers who appeared possibly homeless than white customers who appeared housed.[1] Most residents experiencing homelessness do not have money to make purchases at these establishments to be able to gain access to the restroom. The Mayor’s proposed change is a callous one, among many others in her budget for housing and homelessness programs.

Public Restrooms are Fundamental to Human Dignity and Health

Passed unanimously by the Council in late 2018, the Public Restroom Facilities Installation and Promotion Act calls for the creation of pilot standalone restrooms in the District in locations recommended by a working group appointed for this purpose. The working group released a draft report with proposed locations in May 2022. The legislation required the mayor to install two public restrooms within 180 days of the release of the report. Rather than installing these restrooms, the Mayor removed funding for public restrooms from the proposed FY 2024 budget and includes language in the Budget Support Act making the standalone restroom provision subject to the appropriation of funding.

Public restrooms are especially critical for people who are restroom-challenged.[2] When seniors, pregnant women, young children, and people on certain medications have to go, they have to go urgently. Knowing that there are public restrooms readily accessible, people are more apt to visit parks, ride their bikes, jog, and walk. Easily accessible, clean, safe restrooms make good business sense and help foster tourism.[3] As a result, more and more cities are investing in public restrooms.[4]

Residents experiencing homelessness in particular stand to benefit from restroom expansions. The pandemic made restroom access worse, as many downtown businesses closed restrooms that non-customers once were able to use. And even prior to the pandemic, there was evidence that fewer businesses were allowing non-customers to use their restrooms. The People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC) visited 85 businesses in five areas of DC that have high levels of pedestrian traffic and people experiencing homelessness to see if they would allow the general public to access their restrooms. In 2015, they found that just over half of the businesses allowed anyone to use their restroom.[5] One year later, they visited these businesses again and found that 10 of these businesses now limited access to individuals who weren’t customers.[6] They also found that businesses discriminated against a PFFC member experiencing homelessness who visited the restrooms. They allowed a white woman who appeared housed to use the restroom but not a Black man who appeared possibly homeless.[7] Most residents experiencing homelessness do not have money to make purchases at these establishments to be able to gain access to the restroom.

The lack of access to bathrooms is not merely an inconvenience—it can have devastating health and public health consequences. People are encouraged to wash their hands frequently to stop the spread of COVID. Catherine Crossland of Unity Healthcare has testified about her patients skipping lifesaving blood pressure, heart and HIV/AIDS medications because they can lead to an urgent need for the restroom.[8] Southern California experienced a large Hepatitis A outbreak from 2017 to 2019 because of the lack of toilets and handwashing facilities for residents experiencing homelessness.[9] At least 21 people died as a result.[10]

By increasing access to public restrooms, the District can be a friendlier place for residents with illnesses and disabilities, tourists, children and their caretakers, and residents experiencing homelessness. I urge the Council to restore funding for standalone restrooms.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify, and I am happy to answer any questions.

[1] People for Fairness Coalition, “Revisiting, One Year Later, Private Facilities in DC That Let Us Use Their Restrooms,’ January 2017.

[2] People for Fairness Coalition, “The Restroom Challenged, from the American Restroom Associate website,” Accessed March 29, 2022.

[3] Mary Beth Quirk, “The Future of Tourism is Public Toilets,” Consumerist, the blog of Consumer Reports, September 5, 2017.

[4] Sarah Breitenbach, “Cities Look to Public Restrooms to Clean Up Downtowns, Attract Tourists,” Huffington Post, September 5, 2017.

[5] People for Fairness Coalition, “Does Downtown Washington DC Have Restrooms That Are Clean, Safe, and Available to Everyone 24/7,” Accessed April 3, 2023.

[6] People for Fairness Coalition, “Revisiting, One Year Later, Private Facilities in DC That Let Us Use Their Restrooms,’ January 2017.

[7] The People for Fairness Coalition dressed the tester who was to appear homeless in a large, tattered jacket, a sock hat, and loose slacks. People experiencing homelessness have many looks just as others do.

[8] Catherine Crosland, “Testimony Regarding B22-223 ‘Public Restroom Installation and Promotion Act of 2017,’” Unity Health Care, January 10, 2018.

[9] Anna Gorman, “‘Medieval’ Diseases Flare as Unsanitary Living Conditions Proliferate” California Healthline, March 12, 2019.

[10] Ibid.