"I'm sorry, we don't have public restrooms here."
That's a terrible thing to see or hear when nature calls and you're looking for a toilet. But expect to hear that phrase or something similar in Denver.
Advocates for people experiencing homelessness and others say Denver has eliminated most public toilets. The change began when COVID arrived. Denver shut off water to bathrooms in most city parks before winter 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns. The city did not want people using the restrooms.
And the water has remained off. The Parks and Recreation Department said it did not have enough staff to turn the water on at all the locations.
The city recently closed the restrooms at the Union Station underground bus terminal citing drug dealing, vandalism and violence. The city now partners with federal law enforcement officers called VIPERS to patrol Union Station.
Steven Soifer, president of the American Restroom Association, says being able to use the restroom is a "fundamental right," adding, "We are failing in not providing these options."
Pushed to use business restrooms
Now more than ever, people searching for a toilet enter private businesses hoping to find one. Often, they leave disappointed. Businesses also have closed bathrooms to everyone but paying customers.
But bathroom access rules aren't clear cut, according to a Wall Street Journal article. Although most states have access rules, they also let individual communities set their own.
As for Denver, it follows the 2015 International Plumbing Code, which does set minimum standards for equipping restrooms in businesses. A restaurant must have one toilet per 75 people. Transportation facilities like airports and bus depots must have one toilet per 500 people. Denver code also requires most retail stores to provide public bathrooms from convenience stores to shopping centers.
But "No Public Restroom" signs abound in Denver, even at those businesses.
Businesses exempt from providing restrooms include parking garages without attendants and places intended for quick transactions such as takeout, pickup or drop-off. Such spaces must have 300 square feet or less public space.
Colorado requires a doctor's note
In Colorado, you can use a business' private restroom if you have a doctor's note and you meet some other conditions. The state's Restroom Access Act was last revised in 2016.
Under Colorado law, a customer is an individual who is lawfully on the premises of a retail establishment. Eligible conditions include "Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, any other inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or any other medical condition that requires immediate access to a toilet facility," the law says.
Filling stations with 800 square feet or less are exempt. Stores with less than three employees present don't have to comply, either.
Businesses also can seek exemptions if allowing customers to use the restroom poses a security risk. The law exempts businesses from being civilly liable for violating the law.
Federal rules needed for restroom availability
The American Restroom Association declared the lack of restrooms in America a public health crisis 15 years ago. The organization lobbies for uniform federal guidelines requiring restrooms.
The U.S. Department of Labor regulates restrooms through OSHA, but those requirements are limited to the workplace, which serves employees, not the public.
The ARA website laments what happens when there aren't enough toilets. "People 'go' in the wrong places. Doorways and alleys are dirty and smelly, Livability is compromised. Maintenance costs rise."
Restroom access 'a fundamental right'
Meantime, people who can't access restrooms, especially people experiencing homelessness, suffer stress and humiliation, Soifer said.
When someone has a bladder or bowel accident, "It's the ultimate shame," Soifer said. "It's like you're a baby again. Using the restroom is a basic human right."
The association reports on its website that physical and mental problems ensue when people cannot relieve themselves.
Paid restrooms could hire attendants
Soifer offered suggestions for cities struggling with restroom security. In the Czech Republic, users must pay everywhere to use bathrooms, he said. While it only costs about a quarter, that money pays for attendants who help keep the restroom safe.
He also advocates for more mobile restrooms. Denver launched a pilot program in 2017 using portable toilets but only had two. That hardly made a dent in the void left by closed bathrooms.
If all else fails, portable toilets should be placed near homeless encampments when it's safe, Soifer said.
A few years ago, a Denver nonprofit held fundraisers to place portable toilets near encampments. They didn't get far. Few property owners were willing to allow placing toilets on their property.
Are more security guards the answer?
Putting security guards into restrooms can be unnerving for people with "shy bladder," Soifer said. Attendants are a better choice.
Denver could pass an ordinance putting teeth into the International Plumbing Code, Soifer said. The city could levy hefty fines against businesses that don't provide public toilets.
Some countries, meanwhile, are experiencing "toilet revolutions," Soifer said. China has embarked on building more restrooms in its rural areas. India also is adding toilets.