DC only has five public restrooms downtown. It could stand to add a few like these, from Portland, OR. Image by The Portland Loo used with permission.

Despite the fact that downtown DC receives more than 20 million visitors a year and hosts thousands of more residents every day, it currently only has five public restrooms available during the day off the Mall — all of the rest are privately operated. A bill before the DC Council this fall could change that, but it needs your help.

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This issues affects everyone

Everyone needs ready access to a clean, safe restroom when nature calls. Access to a clean, safe restroom is an United Nations recognized human right. It's fundamental to human dignity, is key for personal and public health, and contributes to livable cities for everyone.

Most European and Asian capitals, recognizing this, have installed public restrooms in populated public areas. For example, London offers this interactive map that shows all of the publicly-accessible toilets in its downtown area.

Interactive map of publicly-available toilets in downtown London. Image by City of London.

In contrast, in Washington, DC there are only five public restrooms (off of the National Mall) that are open during the day. Only two are open 24/7. They’re near the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, so neither are convenient for people who need them at night.

This is an issue for everyone.

We all need to use a restroom several times a day. This is especially important for people who are restroom challenged (including seniors, young children, and people taking certain medications) because when nature calls, they have to go urgently. Walkers; joggers; bicyclists; taxi, Uber and Lyft drivers; parents of toddlers; and people experiencing homelessness benefit too. So do tourists — and that’s an important industry for the city.

However, those who cannot find a restroom when nature calls and are caught urinating or defecating in public risk a fine of up to $500, 90 days in jail, or both.

The DC Council could act and start to address this

One proposed solution comes in the form of Bill 22-0223, the Public Restroom Facilities Installation & Promotion Act of 2017. Bill 22-0223 establishes a working group to identify an appropriate model and sites for 24/7 stand-alone public restrooms. It also directs the working group to propose a program to provide incentives to private businesses to make their restrooms available to the public during the hours they are open.

The guidance included in Bill 22-0223 is taken from lessons learned and best practices of cities in the US and elsewhere that have been successful in installing and maintaining clean, safe, and accessible public restrooms. For example, based on our research we think there are two particular models that would be good for DC: the Portland Loo and the Community Toilet Scheme.

The Portland Loo is a prefabricated structure that takes up an area the size of a parking place that could be placed around downtown DC. Another route couple be to implement a Community Toilet Scheme (CTS). Instead of building additional public toilets, this scheme provides an incentive to businesses in highly-frequented areas to open their restrooms to the public.

If passed, Bill 22-0223 will empower an interagency working group to look into these kinds of solutions and how to implement them in DC.

What’s next for the bill

Bill 22-0223 was introduced in April 2017, and it’s working through the Committee of Transportation & Environment and the Committee on Health. Unfortunately, if the the bill is not brought forward for a full Council vote by the end of this year, the legislative process must start over.

That is why the organization we work for, the People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC) Downtown DC Public Restroom Initiative, is joining with Greater Greater Washington to call upon the DC Council to pass this bill by the end of the year. Twenty one organizations and thirteen ANCs have previously supported this Initiative and bill, but now we need a final push.

Please join us in signing this petition urging action from the DC Council and share it with your colleagues and friends.

We can't wait any longer!

Sign the petition!

Marcia Bernbaum, retired from a 20-year career in international development with the US Agency for International Development (USAID), is a proud member of the People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC). Since 2014 she has been Mentor and Advisor to PFFC's Downtown DC Public Restroom Initiative which advocates for clean, safe, public restrooms available for everyone in needed areas of Washington, DC. You can email her questions about the initiative at marcy@pffcdc.org.

George Olivar is a Buddhist Monk who came to DC in 2014 after spending 20 years in monasteries in Asia to study Buddhist texts in the Library of Congress. He unexpectedly found himself homeless because he couldn’t live on his social security. Now housed, George has been a member of PFFC for four years and is an active participant in PFFC's Downtown DC Public Restroom Initiative.

Janet Sharp has been an activist since 2012 at the age of 65 when she started applying for housing and finding that the District doesn’t have enough housing for everyone and no clean safe public restrooms available 24/7 downtown. She been a member of PFFC for four years, and will continue to be involved in all issues that PFFC is working on.

John McDermott is formerly homeless and now has his own apartment. He was a founder of the People for Fairness Coalition in 2008, where he has worked tirelessly on advocating for housing for the less fortunate. John believes that it is important that people know how critical it is for everyone to have ready access to a clean, safe public restroom when they need it.