A campaign for public toilets

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Homeless advocates and politicians call for automated bathrooms to be moved out of warehouses and onto the streets


  • At Picture the Homeless’s #FreeToPee protest and press conference in Madison Square Park, August 28th. Photo courtesy of Picture the Homeless

  • At Picture the Homeless’s #FreeToPee event in Madison Square Park, August 28th. Photo courtesy of Picture the Homeless

In recent years, there has been considerable discussion and debate about how New York City handles what have been referred to as “low-level crimes or offenses.” Should turnstile-jumping be prosecuted as a crime, or treated as an offense met with a summons, or not punished at all, because many turnstile jumpers simply do not have the $2.75 fare? What about smoking or possession of small amounts of marijuana? Some of the district attorneys have stopped prosecuting this as a criminal offense, and the NYPD has just said it will be issuing summonses, rather than making arrests, for this “offense.”

One of these behavioral issues is “public urination,” for which the penalty has transitioned, in many cases, from a criminal citation to a summons, or civil ticket, which can range from $75 for a first offense to $350 for a third, after which it can go back to being a criminal citation. It’s generally taken as a given that people should “just wait until they get home.” But what if they have no home, as is the case with tens of thousands of New Yorkers? What if they, (men or women) have bladder issues, or (men) have prostate issues, which may make waiting until they get home not an option? And what about public toilet options (once much more available), that would make untenable waiting unnecessary?

The advocacy group Picture the Homeless (PTH) honed in on these issues at a press conference last Tuesday near an automated public toilet just outside Madison Square Park. Though the City ordered 20 of these toilets in 2006, only 5 were installed, and the remaining 15 sit in a warehouse in Queens. Among the other numbers provided by PTH: there are only 53 toilets available in the city’s 468 subway stations, according to a 2017 survey. An Urban Justice Center report found that only 8 of 389 public plazas in Manhattan had bathrooms. They are scarce in parks and playgrounds as well.

Despite this scarcity, according to the Misdemeanor Justice Project of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the city issued 308,724 criminal citations for public urination from 2006 to 2016. And in the first quarter of 2018, the NYPD, according to its Summons Report, issued 1,392 summonses for public urination.

Monique George, PTH’s Executive Director, said “No one should have to choose between a trip to the precinct and a trip to the hospital when they have to pee.” Other advocates mentioned the fact that few of the subway stations that once had open bathrooms still do, and that frequent subway delays only exacerbate the problem.

City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who attended the press conference, said that “New York City currently lacks adequately safe and clean public restrooms. I urge the de Blasio administration to place higher priority on getting the automated public toilets out of storage and into use.” Council Member Stephen Levin sent a statement affirming the importance of access to public bathrooms, in which he lent his support to PTH’s #FreeToPee campaign.

There will be a #FreeToPee workshop at Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South, on Thursday, September 6th, from 6 to 8 p.m. where people can learn how to get involved with the campaign to get the toilets out of the warehouse and onto the streets.

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