Why We Need Public Bathrooms: Homeless People Speak Out

For the more than 7,000 people living on San Francisco’s streets, there are very few bathrooms and showers available. While homeless folks would like to shower and relieve themselves, the reality is that there are few facilities. Dignified, safe hygiene facilities are a human right, regardless of housing status. Homeless people share why San Francisco needs to start providing more public bathrooms and showers now.

Where can you get a shower for no cost for a job interview?

We try to stay around one of the bathrooms open 24 hours. A restaurant or something like that. But a lot of people don’t have those choices. And it’s real hard on women. My wife is with me, and her having to go out in the grass to go to the bathroom…it hurts me on the inside. It’s real, real hard on me. And I do the best I can, I just pray it gets better.

It was 2012 when I had my accident. I was in a coma, carbon monoxide poisoning, and I lost everything. My house, my kids, 90% of my memory. I actually haven’t worked until this year, because I’d forget where I had to go, I’d get lost 6 blocks from where we were staying. It would take me 6 hours to get home. I’ve been doing the things my doctors told me to do and some of my memory has come back. But I’ve got a long ways to go.

Hygiene is a main thing, because if you get a job interview, where can you go to get a shower at no cost just for a job interview? You’re trying to better your life, you go to the interview and you haven’t had a shower, and you don’t get the job. You look at that from the employer’s perspective, they don’t want no one dirty. It’s really hard being homeless and being able to find a place to shower every day.

– Jeff Burris

I try my best to hold it as much as I can.

I’ve been trying my best to get off the street. Contacting houses and stuff like that. But nobody wants to rent a place to someone who stinks, or smells bad, or in other words — not to be rude or anything — looks homeless. Because they automatically think you’re a drug user. Me, I’ve been clean and sober 28 and a half years. I don’t use drugs, but people still put those labels on me. So the city could put the money towards things that we really need like showers, more bathrooms, even recovery centers, where people could get sober. Even that would help out.

I try my best to hold it as much as I can. I try to go to the city library. If by chance it’s after hours, then I try to avoid eye contact with everybody. Try to find some place secluded. There was one experience — why I’m wearing shorts right now instead of pants — it happened 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. I woke up and looked around everywhere for a bathroom; couldn’t find one. And let’s just say I’m wearing shorts now. Not to be gross or anything. That was my only pair of pants. I had to wait until the morning to clean up because you can’t find that many water fountains around here that are outside for people to drink out of. I had to wait until the next morning and clean up that way.

The only thing I’m seeing in San Francisco is that all the money is going toward the rich. New condos keep going up, middle class and lower class families have to move out because they can’t afford the rent here anymore. People who have lived here their whole lives have to move out. I would say we have more than enough money in this city. We’re not going to hurt anybody if we put the money toward the middle and lower class. I mean, take care of us. It’s really messed up.

– Tommy Blackaby

When you treat people like animals, they start to act like animals.

Do you know how hard it is to try to hold your stuff until you can find some place to do it? If by chance you can find a bathroom that’s open outside, you’re lucky. Especially if you’re not downtown. I was in the Bayview. There was absolutely no restrooms, unless you bought something. I tried to camp by McDonald’s so I could go and use their restroom. The security guard was cool with me. When they got fed up with it, I went to the Jack in the Box across the street. It was a matter of making every fast food joint mad at me, you know? But when they were closed, you find two cars and you squat.

When you treat people like animals, they start to act like animals. Seriously. I have a Master’s degree, I’m an educated woman. When I became homeless, I became an animal. It was because of the way people treated me. When you treat people like they’re homeless but not hopeless, they’re still people, it’s a whole different feeling for the recipient.

– Kathy Mills

Taking a shower is really, really difficult.

I’ve been homeless for 16 years. I’m sort of on the street but I happen to be a little bit more wise. For example, sometimes I go to the damn airport and spend the night there.

Well, I try to find places that aren’t so antagonistic against people. I’ll try for example, the Hilton, the library, you know what I mean. I don’t use the bathrooms on the street. Every time I go in there, there’s all kinds of needles on the ground, and there’s people nodding off.

Taking a shower is really, really difficult. There are very few places that really do provide a shower. Number one is St. Martin’s over there on 16th and Potrero, then MSC South, and the other one is 16th and Capp, the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center.

It definitely sucks. I’m actually saving some money so I can get the hell out of San Francisco.

– Milan, 66 years old

There are two showers for fifteen women and two showers for one hundred men. It takes from 9am-2pm just to shower.

I’ve been homeless for about six months. For him it’s been about four. We’ve been living on the street in a homeless community near St. Mary’s Park. I feel safe there because I speak English well and can defend myself, but Alex says that there are times when he doesn’t feel safe. He’s more comfortable speaking Spanish. We try to keep our community clean and our neighbors don’t complain, but it’s hard to do. We don’t have any facilities, especially at night. We do our necessities right on the street and then have to get rid of it. There isn’t much access to trash facilities and when you see a garbage it’s usually full and overflowing, but we do our best.

There’s a clinic at 16th and Capp in the Mission where we shower. It’s not the best. There are only two showers for about fifteen women and two showers for maybe one hundred men. Sometimes we show up to take a shower and can’t that day. Yeah, it takes a lot of time for us. It takes us from about nine o’clock in the morning ‘til two in the afternoon just to shower and eat if we want to that day.

There’s times where I don’t take a shower because I can’t. On those days I clean with wipes. When I get dressed those days it doesn’t feel the same; my self-esteem is down. When you don’t take showers you’re not motivated to do things.

I used to have a job with Costco. I can make it back I think. But it’s hard to get back there when I can’t wash myself and I always feel dirty. You notice that other people are clean and you notice that you’re not clean. How can that make you move on in life?

– Maribel & Alex, as told by Maribel

What you can do to help

1. If your neighborhood is short on public restrooms (and, most likely, it is) call the Department of Public Works and ask for more Pit Stops! If your neighborhood already has them, ask to extend the Pit Stop hours.

2. Educate others and speak out if somebody negatively comments on the way a homeless person looks, dresses, or smells. Explain why we need more bathrooms and showers.

3. Sign St. Anthony’s petition, which calls on the City to provide toilets, showers, and garbage service. Find the petition here.

The stories for this article were collected by the advocacy team at St. Anthony’s Foundation. All photos taken by David Watterson.