Jared Mitchell waited several minutes in line to use a bathroom in Penn Station only to be told he was not allowed inside.
Amtrak workers close the bathrooms — a lifeline for people like 24-year-old Mitchell who live on the streets — multiple times each day and all night for deep cleanings as a COVID-19 safety precaution.
An on-duty restroom attendant also limits the number of people using the facility to six at a time to comply with social distancing guidelines, according to Amtrak, which operates the transit hub.
Mitchell, who was sitting on the sidewalk a few feet away from Penn Station on a hot recent weekday morning, confessed that when he couldn’t get into the closed bathroom earlier this month he became so desperate he had to “go on myself.”
Mitchell, one of an estimated nearly 3,600 New Yorkers living on subways and sidewalks, has struggled to find bathrooms and water in the months since the pandemic spread across the city.
“You probably smell me now,” said Richard Parry, 51, another homeless man, as he sat on 31st Street near Eighth Avenue. “Human waste is everywhere. It’s not because we are lazy. It’s because people aren’t letting us in.”
The lack of bathroom access, which sometimes leads to public urination, has long plagued the city.
But chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s, where managers at some outlets would allow homeless people to use the bathrooms, no longer let customers inside, exacerbating the problem amid the coronavirus crisis.
Eateries are also more reluctant to hand over free water, according to a survey conducted by Human.nyc, a homeless outreach organization.
The group interviewed 32 homeless people on the streets of Manhattan last month to better understand some of the daily obstacles they face.
Six respondents said they were not able to stay hydrated over the last 60 days, the survey, conducted by homeless people living in hotels, found.
“We learned how much people rely on private establishments for their basic needs,” said Josh Dean, co-founder of Human.nyc.
Portable Toilets Destroyed
Five survey respondents said there was a time they couldn’t find a bathroom and had no other choice than to relieve themselves on the streets or in a bottle.
During the height of the pandemic, the de Blasio administration temporarily deployed portable toilets in 12 spots across the city.
But those toilets and hand-washing stations were vandalized and ultimately had to be taken out of operation, according to Isaac McGinn, a spokesperson for the city Department of Homeless Services.
“Our dedicated, persistent, and compassionate outreach teams are committed to connecting New Yorkers living unsheltered to the resources they may need –– and are out engaging New Yorkers 24/7/365 to outline the services available to them,” he said in a statement.
Charmain Hamid, 45, said she relies on a Starbucks inside Penn Station for water and panhandles for money to buy food. But the sidewalks these days are trafficked by fewer people, and virtually no tourists, who were generous, said Hamid.
“There’s less and less,” she said, noting she’s seen a spike in new people living on the streets competing for increasingly limited donations.
“The more [pedestrians], here the more we eat,” said Parry, adding that he’s recently lost a lot of weight. “I miss those tourists.”
For Ashley Belcher, 27, the search for a bathroom took over an hour last week. The McDonald’s on Sixth Avenue and 14th Street that she normally relies on is fixing its facility, so she walked to the nearby Lenox Health Greenwich Village medical facility.
But a security officer there, she said, wouldn’t let her inside, saying she did not have a medical disorder.
“I told him I had ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome,” she said. “I was in so much pain. It’s inhumane. The hospital said no.”
The hospital’s policy is to block anyone from using its bathrooms unless they are a patient or a visitor of an admitted patient, said Joe Kemp, a hospital spokesperson.
“Lenox Health Greenwich Village regards safety as a top priority, and in order to maintain the well-being of our patients and staff — especially amid a pandemic — we do not open our restrooms to the general public,” Kemp said.
‘I was in so much pain. It’s inhumane. The hospital said no.’
Belcher said she ended up “going downstairs” to use a bathroom at the F/M line subway station where a friendly MTA staffer opened up a chained door.
Belcher is one of 30 homeless New Yorkers put up in free hotel rooms sponsored by a crowdfunding campaign. The de Blasio administration has promised the group — after protests in front of a top City Hall official’s home — that it will pay the hotel bills going forward.
To relieve crowding in its shelters in response to the pandemic, the city has moved homeless into ailing hotels and is eyeing converting some hotels into long-term affordable housing.
Picture the Homeless, a group that advocates for people living on the street, reports that homeless people experience urinary tract issues and related health problems at three times the rate of housed people.
The organization launched a “Free to Pee” campaign in 2018 to boost bathroom access for people on the streets.
“If you are not a patron to a restaurant you can’t use a bathroom,” said Charmel Lucas, a homeless advocate and member of Picture the Homeless.
Among the few places people can use are the bathrooms at the city’s major transit hubs and Bryant Park, which are open with a limit of three people in each bathroom. The Bryant Park bathrooms underwent a $300,000 upgrade in 2017.
Some people have gone to city-funded homeless drop-in centers to cool off and for their bathrooms.
Activists noted that many homeless people once used bathrooms inside soup kitchens, but those spots are no longer available.
“All the food is outside,” Lucas said. “They are telling everybody to wash their hands. Really? Where are they washing their hands? It’s very unfortunate.”
‘New York Has to Wake Up’
In 2008, Portland, Ore., installed a stand-alone public bathroom dubbed the “Portland Loo.” The bathrooms, which cost about $100,000 to build and another $100,000 to install, do not have sinks. They also feature some strategically placed slats to show people outside some of what is going on within, to prevent drug use or prostitution.
The bathrooms, manufactured by Madden Fabrication, employ blue lighting to make it hard for heroin users to find their veins and shoot up inside. Some are now in use in other cities across the country and in Canada.
But the Portland Loo has not worked everywhere: San Diego officials removed one after complaints of drug use and multiple 911 calls in 2015.
Some homeless advocates say standalone public bathrooms are best deployed with an attendant to make sure people are moving in and out.
“New York City has to wake up,” said Carol McCreary, co-founder of PHLUSH, or Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human, a nonprofit in Portland that advocates for better public access to bathrooms.
“What I don’t understand in a city as diverse and respectful of human rights, is how advocacy groups have failed to leverage attention on the problem,” she added.
New York City and much of the rest of the country have long struggled to provide bathroom access to people on the streets, especially in lower-income neighborhoods, said Kimberly Worsham, founder of FLUSH, or Facilitated Learning for Universal Sanitation and Hygiene.
In the 1970s, activists pushed to ban public bathrooms that charged a fee. Many states ended up making pay public toilets illegal but alternative solutions for public bathrooms did not arise, Worsham said.
In 2006, the Bloomberg administration announced a 20-year franchise agreement with Cemusa, later bought by JCDecaux, to put in 20 automatic public toilets and 3,500 bus stop shelters and at least 330 newsstands in New York City.
But only a few of the toilets have been installed and the city has struggled to find suitable spots.
In the German city of Bremen, the government has given incentives of 50 to 100 euros a month to restaurants and other businesses that open their bathrooms to the public.
As THE CITY reported earlier this year, the de Blasio administration has been developing a program, prompted by the City Council, that would relieve establishments of fines for violations in exchange for providing public restrooms.
At least one activist in New York City wants to see businesses step up locally.
“I love that idea,” Dean said.