Denver, CO

Public restrooms, scarce in Denver, added to 16th Street Mall

David Heitz

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Photo illustration/City of Denver

The City of Denver finally has added permanent restroom facilities to 16th Street Mall. People experiencing homelessness are rejoicing.

The busy pedestrian mall is teeming with people partaking in food and drink. But until recently, restroom facilities outside of restaurants and bars has been scarce.

People experiencing homelessness often walk up and down the mall. But most businesses won’t let anyone use their restroom without making a purchase.

For years people experiencing homelessness have complained that there is nowhere to use the facilities other than one small restroom at Skyline Park on Arapahoe Street. That restroom remains open.

The new restroom is at 16th and Champa streets. It looks like something between a temporary restroom and a permanent one. It is painted the same bright blue that adorns mobile restrooms used throughout the city.

The restroom is open from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily. It will be staffed by an attendant. The restroom features a high-tech sanitation system, touchless faucets, and soap dispensers. There even is room for social distancing.

New restroom cost $350,000

The restroom cost $350,000. Federal COVID-19 relief funds paid for it. Maintenance will be paid for with wastewater funds from the Department of Transportation Infrastructure.

“Providing residents and visitors access to a comfortable, clean restroom meets a basic and universal human need and we’re proud to deliver this facility to the people of Denver,” Mayor Michael B. Hancock said in a news release. “By making restroom facilities more accessible to all, we increase people’s ability to get out and enjoy our downtown area with confidence and improve quality of life and the way our city looks and functions.”

In recent months, residents have been alarmed by human feces showing up on Denver’s streets – even on 16th Street Mall. Denver’s dozens of downtown homeless encampments don’t have restroom facilities or garbage pickup.

Many homeless people use public restrooms for bathing and washing their hair. The attendant likely will work to keep the line moving.

Safe public restrooms scarce in Denver

Other public restrooms in Denver, such as those at Union Station’s bus terminal, have become overrun with drug users and dealers. Many residents do not feel safe using them.

Denver first rolled out mobile restrooms in 2016. The idea was to test various locations before choosing a permanent site. But the sites often were closed, and the restrooms locked.

"I'm proud to have worked with city agencies to launch the creative, mobile restroom program that expanded access to sanitation for those who are away from home or living without one in Central Denver," Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech said. "Today the vision of using what we've learned from the mobile restroom pilot to create lasting infrastructure takes a step forward on our beloved 16th Street Mall. I look forward to building upon this success to ensure our infrastructure matches the vibrancy and needs of our city."

Many public restrooms closed

The new restroom is 18 feet long and contains only two stalls. It occupies a former parking lane. The area is well-lit and monitored by security cameras.

The city offers a map online that shows the locations of the few public toilets in the city. It also lists whether patrons must first pass through a security screening, such as at the city and county and Webb buildings.

Many public restrooms remain closed due to COVID-19. Eight portable toilets in various parks are listed as “24/7,” but parks close at night.

The restrooms are the Capitol building are listed as “closed indefinitely.” The central library also remains closed.

Restrooms on each floor of the library frequently were filled with people injecting drugs before COVID-19. Restroom lines could be 15 minutes or longer with many people experiencing homelessness packed into the restrooms waiting.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO
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