Citing ongoing problems with drugs, prostitution, and other illegal activities, the city council voted on Monday, May 19, to fast-track the elimination of the city's five automated public toilets, saving $300,000 but raising an inevitable question: Where will people with nowhere else to go, go?

The council thinks it has the answer. According to a March report by Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), there are actually more than enough restrooms to meet all possible demand, including from the homeless—who, according to the report, "have plenty of alternatives" in the central city. Indeed, the report identifies 77 "publicly accessible" restrooms in the area.

But are they truly open to the public? Not really. Of the 77, a large number are owned by private businesses—businesses that might not cotton to crowds of homeless people tromping through their aisles and brushing up against the merchandise. (Or a horde of tourists from Yakima, for that matter.) Among the private establishments on the list: Elliott Bay Book Company, Macy's, Barnes & Noble, and the Seattle Art Museum. Once you factor these out, plus restrooms that aren't open at night, there remain a scant 20 truly accessible restrooms in the entire central city.

That detail might have escaped you if you listened to council members this week, when they were quick to describe the automated public restrooms as a menace, not an amenity. It wouldn't surprise you, though, if you listened to what those same council members were saying seven years ago, when most council members argued that the lack of restrooms in Seattle was to blame for dirty alleys, reduced quality of life, and diminished property values.

Nick Licata, who supported the toilets in 2001, said at the time that they would "be beneficial to local businesses because tourists, shoppers, residents, and the homeless are equally accommodated." On Monday, he voted to kill the toilet contract. Jean Godden, then a columnist for the Seattle Times, wrote a column in 2001 supporting the toilets, arguing, "It's time to do... the humane thing." On Monday, she, too, voted to kill the program. At no point on Monday did any council member express the kind of concern the council did seven years ago for meeting the basic needs of Seattle's least advantaged residents. (SPU is trying to improve signage and negotiate deals to open more restrooms to the public.)

Council members argued, and rightly so, that the automated, single-stall toilets are magnets for prostitution, drugs, and other illegal behaviors. What they didn't mention is that pushing illegal activities out of public restrooms doesn't make them go away; it just ensures that there will be one fewer option for the hundreds of people who use the automated toilets legally every day. Don't like piss-covered Dumpsters and alleys strewn with human shit? Provide people with alternatives. recommended