Toilets? For the public? Go on...
Toilets? For the public? Go on... ananaline/Getty Images

In the midst of a public health crisis, the fact that Seattle only has six 24-hour public restrooms should raise some alarm bells, especially when we have around 3,500 people living unsheltered.

After prodding from Councilmember Lisa Herbold in at least two different council meetings with COVID-19 response stakeholders, Seattle's Human Services Department announced that "portable toilets, hand-washing stations, and four hygiene trailers" will be deployed across the city.

Last fall, Tiffani McCoy with Real Change pushed for Seattle to fund a mobile pit stop program with a movement called "Everybody Poos." The program was started in San Francisco and replicated across the country to give homeless people—and anyone who needs to heed nature's call—a bathroom. In November 2019, the city allocated nearly $1.3 million for the program, which would provide two toilets per pit stop, hand-washing or sanitizing stations, pet waste disposal, and needle disposal, and would be staffed by formerly incarcerated people to get them integrated back into traditional employment.

And, maybe best of all, the pit stops wouldn't cost half a million dollars for one toilet. Looking at you, Ballard Loo.

Seattle has been talking and talking about increasing public restroom availability for years. If these new measures had been implemented earlier, McCoy said "we could have used them in an emergency," not just to get people bathroom access but to "spread information" and use the pit stops "as an outreach tool."

McCoy had not seen any action to implement the program since the November 2019 money was allocated and the budget was finalized. She acknowledged that HSD does a lot but she still felt frustrated that as of a late February stakeholder meeting, she was still having to explain the basics of the program.

"It's important to move forward with mobile pit stops," Herbold said in a special council meeting held after Mayor Jenny Durkan issued her civil emergency proclamation. "Public health best practices are being used in other places as it relates to mobile pit stops. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel," Herbold urged.

Powers given to Durkan by the proclamation of civil emergency would mean the mobile pit stop program could, theoretically, bypass a lot of bureaucratic processes and be implemented quickly.

Again, on March 9, Herbold flagged the council's "hygiene investments" for Deputy Mayor Mike Fong and asked if any executive orders would be in the works for things that already had funding, specifically mobile pit stops.

"We certainly need to probably pivot and look at the deployment of those resources in an expedited way," Fong told Herbold at the meeting. "I’d like to pull our team together to take a closer look."

Sure enough, on Tuesday, HSD announced the four hygiene trailers that will be placed around Seattle. There's not much more information there. McCoy didn't even know if these trailers were related to the mobile pit stop program.

"This expansion of hygiene and sanitation services does align with the Mayor's and Council's 2020 budget, which called for more restroom access across the city," Will Lemke, a spokesperson with HSD, told The Stranger. According to what Lemke told Herbold, he's "unsure whether the money set aside for Mobile Pit Stops were being used for this," Herbold told The Stranger over email.

McCoy has a lot of other questions, like: Will these units be purchased or leased? The answer could indicate whether the program will stick around after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. Herbold confirmed that HSD will be leasing them but isn't sure "whether they will exist beyond COVID-19 crisis."

Regardless, Herbold said that the trailers could be placed around the city as early as this week. Hygiene is coming to populations who don't have any access to it.

"I hope that they’re deployed in time to flatten curve among this incredibly vulnerable population," McCoy said in reference to efforts to halt the spread of COVID-19 infections. "I wish we had in the past decade invested in hygiene for folks outside so we didn’t have to scramble. I wish we didn’t have to scramble all the time."