Spring is starting to heat up, and for much of the country, that means more people are spending time out on the streets for food, drinks and parties, later and later into the night. Odds are, that means you’re also more likely to run into those same people pissing on said streets, which, if you’re anything like me, makes you wonder: Hey, isn’t there somewhere better to do that?
The answer to that question is a surprisingly complex one, interwoven with the politics of the past and the social conflicts of today. Even in 2022, the dilemma of what to do about people relieving themselves in public affects cities all across the nation, whether in a blue state like California or a red one like Alabama.
Nobody wants to confront the reality of the situation: No, there really isn’t somewhere better for a person to go, and it’s thanks to a long history of cities and states treating bathroom access as a classist luxury, rather than a necessity for all. The disappearing public restroom is an indictment of how the bloated budgets and bureaucracy of government often fail to tackle the most basic of needs.
In fact, our laws prohibiting urination in public punish the most vulnerable people in our society — and in light of all these repeated failures, maybe it’s about time we legalized pissing in public, and tackle the issue at root instead.
The onset of the COVID pandemic was a teachable moment: With thousands of restaurants and cafes shuttered in big cities, many people realized for the first time that they didn’t have access to a toilet while out and about. It was as if we had rolled the clock back to the turn of the 20th century, before the public restroom existed as a concept.
Back then, the only semi-public toilets in urban areas were located in saloons, which used the loo as a handy way to attract customers off the street, according to historian Peter C. Baldwin. Many early bathrooms also only had urinals and were intended for men only, reflecting an era when women rarely ventured out of the home. As those norms shifted in the 1900s, so did bathroom design and access — but even this expanded landscape of business-run toilets left many people subject to discrimination from the proprietor. “Even if provided free of charge,” Baldwin notes, “the use of a toilet is understood to be the result of an agreement between the individual and a business. It is an awkward, grudging agreement, inflected by judgments of the individual’s social status.”
Maybe it was this awkwardness that led to a push for public “comfort stations” that were free for all; by 1919, more than one hundred cities had debuted such a facility. It was an idea that only got more popular when the start of Prohibition in 1920 led to the closure of drinking holes (and their toilets). But Baldwin observes that these heavily used “comfort stations” became less popular over time, decaying in maintenance and reputation as cities struggled with upkeep. The Great Depression was the death knell of the city-funded public toilet, and it never really recovered.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a resurgence of paid toilets that cost money (usually a dime) to access, but these were controversial with a number of advocates for poor and disabled people, and ultimately were phased out or left in disarray, like the “comfort stations” of a prior generation. The rapid suburbanization and white flight from cities during this time, as well as growing inequality and homelessness, created the perfect conditions for a swath of people to have to piss outside — and then be criminalized for it.
Back then, as it is today, relieving yourself in public can be treated as a crime in every state, even those without specific laws on public urination. The key is that it can be prosecuted under charges of disorderly conduct or indecent exposure, which leaves a lot of subjectivity to a law enforcement officer’s discretion. This is a pain in the ass for anyone to deal with, but especially for unhoused people, and doubly so for unhoused women and trans people, who experience higher rates of violence on the street.
A 2019 report from the National Law Center of Homelessness and Poverty, for example, found that 20 to 30 percent of unhoused respondents had been cited or arrested for public urination; some of those people faced the risk of being labeled a sex offender for life because 13 states have laws that classify public urination as a potential sexual crime.
Meanwhile, the reality is that relieving oneself in public is basically a necessity if you live on the street. Consider the 50-block area of Skid Row in L.A.: There are some 15,000 people who live there, and only five public toilets to share. Robert Garcia, an unhoused resident of Skid Row, told The Nation that he’s constantly preoccupied with figuring out when he can use the restroom next — and how making the wrong move could mean ending up behind bars.
“As soon as I start… the police pull up and shine a light on me,” Garcia recalled of one incident. “They don’t get out of the car, but they’re looking at me and shining the light and pointing it at me. They say, ‘You know what you’re doing is illegal, right? We can arrest you and take you to jail, right? And we can have you declared a sexual offender and put you on a list.’”
The lack of access to clean public bathrooms is part of a spectrum of social failures that range from the dearth of trash cans in cities to the broader lack of housing for the poor everywhere in America. The solution seems obvious: Just build, fund and maintain the damn things. Instead, we live in a deeply stupid status quo in which budgets for police keep growing and we pretend to ignore the obvious: Privileged people in nice garb can talk their way into a bathroom pretty much anywhere, while people who don’t look “the part” can be (legally) turned away from every business in a downtown area.
The issue of peeing, and where it happens, has always been informed by a battle over class. It’s why we continue to see right-wing narratives around poverty and decay fixate on human waste, and the fact that cities like San Francisco quote-unquote “stink like shit.” But this isn’t a problem of political ideology — it’s a matter of resources, and the willful ignorance toward long-term solutions.
Pissing on public property is inevitable in a society that gives people no other option, and it’s basically entrapment for anyone to be punished by the state for it. In solidarity, let us now demand the obvious: Public urination should be legal, stench and chaos be damned.