Not everyone has the luxury to “hold it until they get home.” For the estimated 6,000 people in Denver who lack permanent housing, just finding a working toilet and safe drinking water can take hours of searching.
For such basics, people experiencing homelessness rely not upon city-provided services but mostly on dozens of community organizers, who, on many evenings, distribute bottles of water and provide fresh-water refills for homemade “Lug-a-Loos.”
The well-publicized conditions at encampments have drawn discontent from many business owners and members of the community, who are concerned about the beauty and safety of their neighborhoods. But they also distract from a critical conversation around fundamental human needs. Thousands of our neighbors are unhoused. Someone needs to help them access the resources that will help them survive.
To study the extent of the problem, a group of students from the University of Denver and Regis University documented the conditions of 140 public restrooms in the City and County of Denver, as listed by the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. (Click here to see the map.)
The facilities they found, if they were open at all, hardly met the needs of those experiencing homelessness. Many of the facilities lacked toilet paper and only about half had hand soap. Just five facilities had menstrual products available, four of which came at a cost.
With so few public restrooms available — and only a portion of them in working order — it’s no wonder those in need of relief are relegated to a five-gallon bucket with a toilet seat and a tent for privacy.
And that’s in the most ideal circumstances. While many experiencing homelessness prefer to use gas-station restrooms, many are closed overnight. Businesses are reluctant to open their doors to non-paying customers. Plus, every time the city displaces people who are unhoused, it pushes them farther from the public restrooms nearest to them. They remain open, however, for neighborhood residents and visitors.
Sources of water for washing were even harder to come by. Although students tallied more than 136 spigots, water fountains and handwashing stations, only about 30% were functioning.
Plenty of journalists have covered the struggle of Denver’s unhoused community, but few are focusing on this critical aspect. An analysis of nearly 70 articles produced by Denver metro news organizations since July 2020 reveals that only 35% mentioned water, sanitation or hygiene.
Only two of those articles discussed the issue in depth. The skimpy coverage could help explain a general ignorance of a pressing concern among the homeless — a problem desperately in need of a solution.
Policy and advocacy frequently overlook the benefits of improving water, sanitation and hygiene for the unhoused. For example, although voters overwhelmingly signaled their support for addressing homelessness in the 2020 election, actual policy falls short.
Resolution 2B may have provided tax dollars for housing, rental assistance, shelters, counseling and health care, but it fails to capitalize on an easier, quicker, less expensive win: clean water and access to a restroom.
Solving Denver’s hygiene and sanitary shortcomings doesn’t require a complete overhaul of the system, at least not right away. In fact, the infrastructure needed to supply people experiencing homelessness with safe drinking water and restrooms already exists.
Community organizers dedicated to the cause have shown the capabilities of building trust and fostering community, while offering meaningful solutions.
Amy Beck, one local organizer, for example, regularly visits camps and offers water, food and company to those unhoused. Other weekly events provide haircuts, clothing and basic hygiene products.
“I don’t think they recognize what we do, actually,” she says of city officials. “They think they already have these things covered and maybe what we’re doing is supplementing, and that’s not really the case. So, I’m not sure they recognize the value we can bring to the table.”
City officials have deemed these solutions to be too expensive, but it’s clear the funding exists. Every sweep of an encampment in Denver, for example, costs $21,000, according to an estimate from community activist, John Staughton. It’s not difficult to imagine spending that money instead on essentials such as accessible restrooms and sources of drinking water.
Bottles of water and porta-potties alone won’t provide stability for the thousands of folks currently living on Denver’s streets and in their cars. Addressing homelessness in our community will require a multi-tiered solution that almost certainly includes safe outdoor spaces, rental assistance programs and health care.
So, it’s not all about drinking fountains and restrooms. But providing better water, sanitation and hygiene does help meet a basic human right while improving the cleanliness and aesthetics Denver residents bemoan.
Leor Feldman, Lorne Fultonberg and Stephanie Frances live in Denver, and are graduate students at the University of Denver.
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