A group of University of Washington professors, a Seattle architect, and a middle schooler started installing sinks across the city.
A group of University of Washington professors, a Seattle architect, and a middle-schooler started installing sinks across the city. Brice Maryman

A sink is nestled in the University District alley between 15th Avenue Northeast and The Ave. It's bolted to a trough of plants. It appeared in May.

Another sink just like it is up The Ave on 47th Avenue Northeast. One was also placed at the University Heights community center along 50th Avenue Northeast.

The first sink is perfectly positioned for shelter-goers at the Roots Young Adult Shelter to wash their hands. Many have also been using the deep-tubbed sink to rinse their clothes. The one on The Ave is right next to Teen Feed, an organization that provides meal support for homeless youth.

These are the first sinks from the Seattle Street Sink program, a grassroots tactical urbanism effort to give homeless people more places to wash their hands and to access water. The program could grow, if the Seattle City Council chooses to fund it.

The sinks were born out of Tiffani McCoy's frustration with the city. McCoy, the lead organizer for Real Change, has been fighting to solve Seattle's public restroom deficiency. She thought she'd won that fight last year when she successfully advocated for a $1.3 million budget item to add a system of mobile pitstops across Seattle (the "Everybody Poos" program). Except, months after that decision, the city still hadn't acquired any pitstops. And then COVID-19 hit.

The Problem

Libraries, businesses, and parks supplement the six 24-hour restrooms that Seattle's homeless rely on, but those places closed in the wake of COVID. Seattle fumbled its early response to the problem, as PubliCola documented, and so McCoy decided to take matters into her own hands. She emailed the American Institute of Architects to see if someone could help her find a solution.

A team of professors from the University of Washington College of Built Environments, a Seattle architect, McCoy, and a middle schooler from Bellevue—now known as the Clean Hands Collective—came up with the design for the street sink, a do-it-yourself sink design that could be placed anywhere in the city.

Currently, the six in-use street sinks are only on private property. City funding would expand the number of sinks and the number of locations where those sinks could be placed.

Councilmember Tammy Morales indicated this week that she'll sponsor a budget item to fund the street sink program with $58,000. With that money, the city could add 63 sinks—nine for each district—and place them on city property.

To meet the hygiene need now months after the pandemic began, Seattle has added 15 hygiene centers to supplement around 200 other city-owned hygiene resources present in parks, community centers, and libraries that have partially re-opened since April, according to Seattle Public Utilities. The hygiene centers contain toilets and sinks. They cost around $35,000 per month per hygiene center, PubliCola reported. Durkan's 2021 budget includes $1.5 million to keep them active through 2021.

"I don't think it's nearly enough," Morales told me.

Access to water in general is hard to come by for homeless people. It's the biggest hurdle for the unhoused population in her district, Morales explained. People steal water from local businesses' hoses and spigots. It ratchets up tension between the homeless and the housed in the community. Those drastic measures, Morales said, are a symptom of the city not meeting people's basic needs.

"People need better access to water and access to handwashing especially during COVID," Morales said. Seattle Sinks could provide that for a fraction of the cost.

The Design

Water access was the core idea at the beginning of the design process for the Clean Hands Collective team, said Elizabeth Golden, an associate professor in the UW department of architecture. Makeshift sinks had been installed before, such as the ones Mehr Grewal, the 13-year-old Collective member from Bellevue, set up around King County at the beginning of the pandemic. But she had to constantly refill them.

Golden came up with the idea to tap into hose bibs. Outdoor faucets, spigots, garden hoses, or any sort of water hook-up are everywhere across the city. The sinks would never need to be refilled. Organizations could choose to host sinks, as long as they were easy enough to make.

This is the utility version of the street sink. Theres also a wheel chair version.
This is the "utility" version of the street sink. There's also a wheel chair version. Alexander Barr

Rick Mohler, a UW associate professor of architecture as well as a member of the Seattle Planning Commission, drew up designs. Prototypes gobbled up his backyard space throughout the summer. It was important to the team that the sink was easily replicable and affordable, accomplishable in one Home Depot run.

One of the fatal flaws of the original design, according to Brice Maryman, a landscape architect in Seattle, was the grey waste, or sudsy, dirty water run-off from the sink. Maryman decided to bolt the sink to an agricultural trough filled with plants, soil, and gravel, so that the hand-washing waters the plants in the trough. It's a modular rain garden, a natural filtration system used in the Pacific Northwest for decades.

Not only is it environmentally friendly, Maryman said, but it's genuinely pleasing to look at.

"It's a piece of the public realm that feels gracious," Maryman said of the final version of the sink. "It's a humane place rather than defensive architecture."

"It’s a kind of critique of how bad [the housing crisis is]," Golden added, "to put parts of a house—these things that you need—out on the street because people don’t have them."

Maryman described the moment the team installed the first sink outside Roots to test it. A homeless woman walked up to them and asked, "Is this for us?" Though the woman wore a mask, Maryman could tell from her eyes that she was smiling.

Roughly 100 people per week use that sink, according to estimates from the team. Currently, six exist in Western Washington. With the council's help, they could be all over Seattle.

Elizabeth Goldman

Sinks and the City

Originally, the plan was to put the sinks in public spaces. But stigmas around homelessness and bureaucratic red tape drove the Collective to place the sinks with non-profits and community centers. Golden worked hard on the branding for the sink to make it clear they were a public utility for everyone. They're bright white with colorful legs and a sticker that says "Seattle Street Sinks."

City funding can expand the program beyond just the non-profit realm and across the city. McCoy with Real Change would love to see the program maintained by Seattle Public Utilities with people assigned to small upkeep tasks like filling up the soap dispensers.

Morales believes her budget proposal has a good chance of making it into the final 2021 budget.

"If we’re able to do something like this it’s not a lot of money," Morales said, of her $58,000 proposal, "but it would have a dramatic impact."

She and her colleagues are also looking at expanding the purple bag program, homeless encampment trash collection that services around 17 encampments. She would like to increase it to 30 encampments by allocating $195,000 in the budget.

"These are easy wins for the city," Morales said.

The best news is that DIY design for the sinks is accessible online for anyone to build. A teacher in the Methow Valley found the designs and built a sink herself. And Duke University in North Carolina just contacted the Clean Hands Collective to let them know they were going to build a sink.

"Anyone of us can contribute to a more friendly public realm," Maryman said, "We don’t have to wait. It’s this little gift."