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Opinion: California cities don’t have enough public restrooms. Here is a solution

California has an opportunity to tackle an issue that affects everyone, but especially homeless Californians: access to public restrooms. Unfortunately, there is not enough data on the scale of the problem for cities to move towards a solution.

An Assembly bill, AB 1297, introduced by Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), would require local governments to inventory public toilets by July 2024, a step to address the chronic lack of toilets throughout the state.

Access to public toilets – facilities accessible to the general public whose use is free – is a human right. Some groups are more dependent on public facilities: people without stable housing, families with young children, delivery drivers and public transport operators, tourists and commuters. But public toilets are very important for public health. Providing relatively clean and safe facilities promotes bladder and bowel health and prevents the spread of infectious diseases such as hepatitis A, shigella and influenza. Research shows that when more toilets are available, open defecation decreases.

California cities, however, have too few public restrooms to serve their populations. A recent estimate of access to Los Angeles, by far the state’s largest city with nearly 4 million people, is particularly grim: there are just 14 permanent public restrooms on city streets. . LA has a network of portable toilets, but they can be here today and gone the next day. Access to basic sanitation in dumps is well below international standards for refugee camps.

San Diego, California’s second largest city, offers a telling case study. The city has recently faced a further rise in hepatitis A cases – just years after a deadly outbreak of hepatitis A sickened nearly 600 people and killed 20 from 2016 to 2018, and a Shigella outbreak in 2021 sickened 53 San Diegans. These outbreaks have been repeatedly linked to inadequate access to public toilets, and they have massively affected people without homes.

In response to these issues, my colleagues and I investigated a fundamental question: where are the public restrooms located in our community? We quickly realized that it is difficult to answer.

Information on public toilets is scarce, difficult to access and often inaccurate. San Diego County did not have a standardized database of public restrooms. Several of its municipalities have no public information about the toilets they manage. We submitted public records requests to locate these facilities, then compiled the responses with publicly available information to develop an online map of all permanent public restrooms in the county. This inventory contains basic information, including facility hours and features offered such as menstrual products and changing tables.

The data paints an alarming picture. Focusing on downtown San Diego, we identified 22 public restrooms, only two of which are available 24/7. The overnight ratio is approximately one permanent toilet for every 204 homeless people living downtown. There are even fewer public toilets in the most peripheral districts.

When we visited downtown washrooms to check their features, we found that only one in 22 offered hot water, four (18%) offered menstrual products, seven offered changing tables (32% ) and nine (41%) offered a gender-neutral or “family” toilet option.

We also asked 115 homeless San Diegans about their bathroom experiences on a typical day. Of the people we surveyed, 70% said they use a public toilet – if available – and 44% said they practice open defecation because no toilet is nearby when they need it. Half of study participants said they experienced discrimination and other barriers when they tried to use the toilet.

Passing AB 1297 would be a critical first step towards increasing access to public restrooms. There is a need for local governments to study what access to toilets looks like in their communities and make this information available to the public.

This is not the first time MP Quirk-Silva has tried to enforce this policy. Opponents argue that requiring an inventory of public toilets would burden local governments. But a better understanding of gaps in toilet access would, in the long run, reduce the work officials need to do to address preventable public health crises directly linked to inadequate facilities.

The state cannot stop there. Once we know where toilets are, we need to use this information to improve the quality of existing facilities, identify where more are needed, and explore creative solutions to increase access, such as public-private partnerships. and corporate sponsors to create more toilets.

California cities are perpetually at risk of infectious disease outbreaks. It’s time to collect the information needed to ensure that all Californians can safely meet their basic needs – and to hold local governments accountable to address this public health issue.

Megan Welsh Carroll is an associate professor of criminal justice and public administration at San Diego State and director of the Project for Sanitation Justice. @bathrooms.sdsu

Los Angeles Times

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