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WASHINGTON, May 26, 2020 – For homeless Americans, the coronavirus crisis has worsened a problem that has blighted them for years; the steady closure of the country’s public bathrooms.

Health officials say frequent hand washing is the best way to fight the spread of COVID-19, but homeless campaigners warn that lockdown closures have left hundreds of thousands of rough sleepers without access to soap and water.

“Bathrooms that people living on the street would be able to use are no longer there – restaurants, libraries, public government buildings,” said Bobby Watts, an epidemiologist and chief executive of the nonprofit National Healthcare for the Homeless Council.

Due to security fears following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, access to public restrooms across the United States has become more and more limited, said Carol McCreary, co-founder of advocacy group Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human (Phlush).

That means homeless people increasingly rely on semi-public bathrooms in places like fast-food restaurants, coffee shops and service stations, especially during the night, she said.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has made such inconveniences a public health issue, putting homeless people and other marginalized groups at increased risk of infection, advocates warn.

“Nothing is more important in this crisis than the neglected intersection of public restrooms and public health,” McCreary told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

“I’ve never seen disparities pop up like we are now,” she said, adding that more than two million people across the country lack access to adequate water and sanitation.

‘IMPOSSIBLE FOR COMMUNITY’

Many U.S. cities have sought to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ensure restroom facilities near homeless encampments stay open round the clock.

If they cannot provide toilets, local authorities have been urged to supply portable latrines and hand-washing facilities for encampments of more than 10 people.

In the Skid Row district of Los Angeles, which is home to an estimated 8,500 people who are homeless or in unstable housing, city officials did eventually install six hand-washing stations.

But Pete White, founder and executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, said that was too little, too late.

“We knew that was going to be impossible for our community, not just for the unhoused but for the housed and moving about,” he said by phone.

The shortfall prompted his group to come up with a solution.

Working with the University of Southern California, they fashioned 30 hand-washing stations based on a design used in Africa during past infectious disease outbreaks.

Made from commercial trash cans and painted by local artists, the stations can hold 20 gallons (75 liters) of water. Soap is held in repurposed electrical junction boxes.

They also created a map of the stations, echoing efforts in cities such as Seattle and San Francisco to show the location of bathrooms and washing facilities during the pandemic.

Los Angeles’ city government declined to comment for this story, though White said authorities have issued a tender for more hand-washing stations and vowed to ensure they are filled 24 hours a day. Portable restrooms have also been installed.

‘DOWN TO ZERO’

In the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., access to public bathrooms has been declining for years, said Marcia Bernbaum of the People for Fairness Coalition Downtown D.C. Public Restroom Initiative, an advocacy group.

Between 2015 and 2017, a group of local activists found public access to restrooms among 85 surveyed establishments fell from 43 to just 11 in two years.

“That list probably went down to zero when COVID came because everything closed down — public facilities, churches wouldn’t let people in, the museums are closed, the libraries are closed,” she said in mid-April.

City authorities have sought to fill the gap due to the pandemic, installing nine portable restrooms at homeless encampments with hand-washing stations nearby, Bernbaum said.

She welcomed such action but warned that without proper cleaning the facilities could become a source of infection themselves. Signs were eventually placed in every restroom urging users to wash their hands, she said.

Elsewhere, the pandemic has highlighted long-standing controversy over installing hygiene facilities for homeless communities, said Barbara DiPietro, senior policy director at the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

Some municipal authorities fear providing restroom facilities would be seen as “enabling encampments”, irking other local residents.

But despite the potential challenges, advocates and health specialists think the pandemic could prove a turning point on the provision of public toilet and washing facilities.

Seattle-based epidemiologist Robert D. Morris published an article in March calling for public bathrooms to close to stem the spread of coronavirus, but later changed his mind due to the possible impact on vulnerable groups such as the homeless.

“It is clearly better for people to have a bathroom than no bathroom,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Skid Row, where White and his colleagues refill their stations with soap every few days, the newly installed facilities are being restocked with water and otherwise well looked after by their users.

“People know ‘This is here for me’, and so they take care of it,” White said. “There’s not been one thus far that’s been vandalized.”

Reporting by Carey L. Biron @clbtea, Editing by Helen Popper. The Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org

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