When You Can’t Find “That Room”

by | Aug 6, 2020 | Formation, Homelessness, Reflections | 4 comments

It has happened all of us at one time or another. We can’t find a “restroom” when we need one. That room… you know… the “rest room”

During our pandemic, the lack of restrooms has become an issue for delivery workers, taxi and ride-hailing drivers, and others who make their living outside of a fixed office building

For the city’s homeless, it’s part of an ongoing problem that preceded covid-19. What happens if you are homeless whether recently evicted,  seeking to escape an intolerable abuse situation,  have a chronic mental illness or any another reason?

The Coronavirus pandemic aggravates an already serious health concern…  closed public restrooms.

I was aware of the Pew Charitable Trusts as a nonpartisan research organzation the studies a wide range of public- interest issues. But I was caught off-guard when someone forwarded to me a report on access to restrooms during this pandemic. The Pandemic Has Closed Public Restrooms, and Many Have Nowhere to Go | The Pew Charitable Trusts

Here are some highlights that struck me.

  • The pandemic has brought the restroom issue into focus for many people — landscapers, utility workers, runners, walkers and cyclists. But for some, restroom equity will remain an issue even when COVID-19 is no longer a threat,
  • “The government has basically given up on installing public toilets,” said Steven Soifer, a social work professor at the University of Mississippi who leads the American Restroom Association, which advocates for better public infrastructure. “It took something like the coronavirus to bring it out in the open.”
  • Private companies might require guests to buy something before using the restroom, advocates said, creating a barrier for homeless or otherwise marginalized people. In places where public urination laws are enforced, those who can’t pay may face repercussions.
  • “You’re criminalizing having a bladder,” said Taunya Lovell Banks, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who recently wrote a law review article about the lack of public toilets. “If you’re caught by the police and ticketed, you have to register as a sex offender. It’s beyond the pale.”

‘Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t’

  • Governments and businesses alike are justifiably concerned about the risk of COVID-19 transmission in restrooms. Research has found that flushing creates “toilet plumes” that can spread particles carrying the coronavirus.
  • Places that do have open restrooms often need to limit occupancy and clean them frequently. Soifer said some restrooms have blocked off every other urinal, a tactic known as “social piss-tancing.”
  • But closing restrooms is its own public health risk. If delivery drivers, for instance, don’t have a place to safely relieve themselves and wash their hands, they risk spreading infection via the food and packages they drop off. Waste that ends up in the streets also could contribute to the spread of COVID-19 or other diseases.

Soifer has long encouraged cities to install gender-neutral, single-stall, fully enclosed restrooms — a model that looks increasingly attractive as experts worry about crowded public facilities. He hopes that the pandemic prompts governments to take a renewed look at the issue of public restrooms.

“Bathroom issues have always been in the background because we’re so puritanical in the U.S.,” he said. “But there are so many problems with turning it over to the private sector.”


  1. Chanel Vachon

    Thanks for the insights. We deal with a lot of homeless people, especially those coming out of shelters. I never considered their problems of finding urinals, toilets to use. What I think we can do is to give them a card to buy something at a local establishment, so when they need to relieve themselves they can.

    God bless,

  2. Kieran F Harrington

    Fr Carroll I never taught of that.I do know they are suffering people Kieran

  3. Fr. Miles Heinen cm

    I have known somewhere in me about this being an issue, but never focused on it as a real world occurrence. Thanks for helping me see how naive I am! Lots to learn.

  4. Honora Remes CC

    Never have I considered how awful it must be to feel “urgent” and have no place to to “go.” Awful predicament. I hope the public health dept. and government can coordinate a response that works.