Imagine having to walk two blocks every time you had to go to the bathroom. That is, if you’re lucky enough to find a restroom within two blocks.
That’s how a new survey conducted for Housekeys Action Network Denver by Regis University and the University of Denver describes homelessness. According to the survey, 82% of people did not have access to a restroom within two blocks. More than two-thirds did not have access to drinking water within two blocks.
The researchers interviewed 193 people experiencing homelessness in Denver and held five focus groups from 2020 to 2023. The group mapped 271 fountains and public toilets in Denver.
Nowhere to ‘go’
Regarding public restrooms, the survey found:
Closed bathrooms: “38% of plumbed park facilities were not open or functioning during normal weekday hours in the summer of 2022, 49% of all park toilets (and nearly all plumbed facilities) were seasonal and closed from October through April, and park toilets were officially closed from sunset to 6 a.m.,” according to the executive summary for the survey.
Inadequate facilities: “Many bathrooms, especially porta potties, were unclean and missing toilet seats, doors, locks, toilet paper and/or hand washing facilities,” according to the summary. “Slightly more than half of all bathrooms had either soap and water or hand sanitizer, 54% had Americans with Disabilities Act access.”
Coping with the lack of public toilets: “Almost half of respondents reported that they must regularly urinate and defecate without any toilet: either in their tent (using a bag), an outdoor place, or an alley or dumpster,” according to the summary. “About a third of the respondents regularly used business toilets.”
Gender issues: “Women, transgender and gender nonconforming people faced additional barriers when attempting to access toilets, which put their health and safety at risk,” according to the summary, “with 23% of the open bathrooms not having functioning locks. Nearly all of the permanent bathroom facilities lacked gender neutral bathrooms. Most seriously, two women we talked to were raped using porta potties at night.”
Water fountains dry
Regarding water fountains, the survey found:
Non-functioning and closed fountains: “More than half (54%) of all water fountains were not working in the summer of 2022 with that proportion rising to two out of three water fountains in parks,” according to the summary. “There were no working water fountains in the areas of the city where encampments are most common.”
Coping with the lack of public access to water: “45% of people surveyed used water at shelters, 37% got water at businesses, 25% purchased water, 24% relied on donated water, 15% used private spigots, 9% used public water fountains, and 15% used another sources,” according to the summary.
Public toilets required but closed
Denver follows the 2015 International Plumbing Code, which sets 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. The 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 of public space to forego a restroom.
Restroom access with 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.
Federal, local laws needed
The American Restroom Association says federal laws should be created around restroom requirements. 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."
What Denver could do
Steven Soifer, president of the ARA, said there are things Denver could do to help solve the restroom shortage. Denver could pass an ordinance putting teeth into the International Plumbing Code, Soifer said. Or the city could levy hefty fines against businesses that don't provide public toilets.
Meanwhile, people experiencing homelessness suffer with no place to relieve themselves, get a drink of water or wash up. “No public restrooms are available anywhere,” said one survey respondent. “It is really frustrating. Eventually you come to a point when you don't care because you have to go and don't have nowhere to go. You go in the bushes. It's embarrassing.”
Said another interviewee: “Not having a place to go feels disgusting, like (I am) an animal.”
Report makes recommendations
At the end of the executive summary, the report makes seven recommendations, including:
1. “Increase access to bathrooms and water fountains. Ensure that all existing bathrooms and water fountains are open and functioning. Construct more facilities in places recommended by the unhoused population. Increase access to public bathrooms in existing city buildings such as rec centers. Provide water and sanitation facilities at encampments. Require shelters to keep their bathrooms open 24/7.
2. “Improve maintenance at existing facilities. More frequent cleaning is needed for bathrooms of high use. Consider the Portland Loo and/or more plumbed facilities that can withstand vandalism and be easily cleaned. At a minimum all bathrooms must be ADA accessible, have toilet paper, locking doors and a way to wash your hands. More bathrooms need child changing stations, pad/tampon dispensers, sharps containers and gender-neutral access. Regular cleaning of bathrooms at encampments can be conducted by hired residents. Water fountains need to be clean and to provide water with enough pressure to fill water bottles.
3. “Keep more water fountains and toilets open all year. Install freeze resistant fountains in places needed by the unhoused population. Build more plumbed winterized bathrooms and keep them open all year. Open bathrooms at rec centers for unhoused people.
4. “Get businesses involved. Offer businesses a subsidy, or provide all bathroom supplies and cleaning, if they open their bathrooms to everyone. A visible sticker on the outside of the business could indicate their participation in this program.
5. “Challenge the social stigma. Ensure that city officials, the media, and houseless service organizations are using people-centered language and not criminalizing the unhoused or blaming them for the sanitation issues. Include the unhoused in the ‘public’ when talking about public health problems.
6. "Test and protect water quality. Regularly test the water quality at the outdoor public fountains and find solutions to mitigate contamination if it exists. Water filters that are designed to fill up bottles are preferred.
7. “Put up maps and signage to locate bathrooms. Put up signs and maps of the City’s bathrooms at transit stations and design an app that can work offline for locating facilities. Regularly update the baseline Google map of water and sanitation facilities and publicize the link.”