Eli, 5 years old, peeks out of the Portland Loo in Cambridge MA

People living in, working in, and visiting European and Asian capitals take it for granted that, when they need to go, they will find a clean, safe, available public restroom nearby.

This, unfortunately, is not the case in Washington, DC, our nation’s Capital. If you are in downtown DC and urgently have to go, you will have a hard time finding a public restroom nearby. Even if there is one, the hours are limited and there are no signs to tell you where it is located. Some private restaurants and food chains, might let you in. However, increasingly they are limiting access to patrons. And, if you are walking in Washington DC late at night and urgently have to go, you may be in big trouble. Chances are you will have to walk a half-mile to a mile to find a clean, safe, restroom that is open; that is, if you know where the few restrooms in DC open 24/7 are located.

The People for Fairness Coalition (PFC) — established in April 2008 with the objective of finding housing for everyone in Washington DC through advocacy, outreach and peer mentoring — has taken up the challenge of ensuring that clean, safe public restrooms are available to everyone 24/7 in downtown areas of Washington DC.

How we got started

Janet inspecting a restroom

Janet inspecting a restroom

It all began in July of 2014 when, at one or our weekly PFC meetings, a member raised the issue. Although it was not central to our objective of finding housing for everyone who needs it in DC, we decide it was important for us to take it on: everyone, including those without housing, need to have safe, clean, restrooms available any time of day or night.

We started by learning from the experiences of other cities in the US and Canada that have had recently been successful in installing and maintaining public restrooms that are clean, safe, and available 24/7. With models and lessons in hand, in November 2014 we established our Downtown Washington DC Public Restroom Initiative. We formed a committee composed of five passionate members of PFC who are determined to stay the course until clean, safe restrooms available 24/7 are installed in needed areas of downtown DC. We have been meeting weekly since November 2014 and carrying out activities in between.

Inventory of facilities with restrooms in five areas of downtown DC

Our first task was to determine whether downtown DC has a problem. Between January and March of 2015 we selected five areas of downtown DC that have a large population of individuals without housing and high levels of pedestrian traffic. We visited 85 restrooms in private establishments in these areas in order to find out whether we could use their restrooms without purchasing something. If they let us in, we: wrote down the hours the establishment was open, and we entered the restroom in order to see if the restroom was clean and safe. We also did an internet search in order to identify restrooms in DC that are open 24/7.

Our analysis concluded that downtown Washington DC does have a problem. Half of the establishments that we visited limited access to patrons and those that were open to the public are increasingly putting locks and combinations on their bathroom doors. There are only 3 clean, safe restrooms open 24/7 in all of Washington DC. If you have to go urgently and don’t know the area well you wouldn’t know where to go as there is no signage leading you to these restrooms. For more information see the 3-page summary of the report or the 14 page full report.


Our accomplishment and next steps

John with street vendor signing our petition.

John with street vendor signing our petition.

Since completing the restroom inventory we have: presented testimony to the DC City Council on the problem; shared the inventory reports with several Council Members, launched a petition asking the DC City Council to support and finance restrooms in needed downtown areas that are clean, safe, and available 24/7; received the endorsement of the Foggy Bottom ANC and the Dupont Circle ANC; had articles on our initiative published in the Washington Post, Street Sense, and the DC Currents. We have nearly 1,000 signatures to our petition.

Our overall strategy is to raise consciousness, educate on the problem, and build support through advocacy. To this end, our approach over the coming months is three pronged: (1) obtain support and buy in from two areas where we believe there is an immediate need for a public restroom — the Dupont Circle area and along the K Street corridor between Farragut and Franklin Squares (this includes obtaining support from local ANCs, resident associations, churches, businessmen and business organizations) ; (2) obtain support from  DC Council members; and (3) obtain the support of important associations representing businesses, consumers, and associations that represent the homeless,  senior, and individuals with disabilities.

We are delighted that on January 10, 2017 DC Council Member Brianne Nadeau, inspired by a presentation we gave her in November, presented legislation to establish a Public Restroom Task Force to “recommend sites and methods for installing public restrooms and to determine the best method of incentivizing businesses to keep their restrooms open to the general public”. Once approved the Task Force will explore viable options for public restrooms as well as possible locations for public restrooms.The legislation has five additional co-introducers: DC Council Members Bond, Silverman, Gross, White, and Allen. We will be working closely to ensure that our activities over the coming months are carried out in sync with the objectives of the Public Restroom Task Force.



Documents available from our Downtown DC Public Restroom Initiative