Last week NPR posted an article titled “San Diego Installed Public Loos, But Now They’re Flush With Problems” and in it they describe how the installation of two prefabricated public restrooms in this California city has caused discomfort and mistrust amongst business owners and the general population. The reason of this uneasiness? Homeless individuals’ use of these facilities.
According to NPR, the installation of these two units has created such aversion in the San Diego population that officials are currently in plans to remove one of the units and put it in storage. Now, to clarify, this a public restroom unit that anyone can use at no cost, it is not exclusive to individuals perceived to be homeless.
In the article, the two main concerns expressed by interviewees were: the possible use of these facilities for prostitution and how “not good for business” it is to have homeless people around the areas where the restrooms are located.
These supposed concerns reflect the systematic oppression that individuals experiencing homelessness are subjected to in the United States, as we previously explored in our documentary series on homelessness in Arizona.
When we deconstruct the claims cited in the article we can observe that they are based on unfounded generalizations that affect a large and varied population of individuals, which constitutes unadulterated and blatant discrimination.
The first one, the possibility that these facilities could be used for prostitution, is unsubstantiated as these specific locations have not been reported to have been used for sex work, the police has not made prostitution related arrests there nor charges have been raised against any individuals. Furthermore, public restrooms and public spaces represent a minor percentage of locations where sex work is performed.
Even when homeless individuals do engage in sex work as a mean to survival, given the scarcity of employment opportunities when homeless, criminalizing this activity is an abusive practice that neither dissuades the occurrence of prostitution nor helps the individual to “get back on their feet” the main interest of many states in the US when formulating homeless policies and which is advertised over and over again as the driving force when dealing with homelessness.
On the other hand, the argument that the presence of homeless individuals is a deterrent for business is not only prejudiced but also illogical. When business owners express concern over seemingly homeless individuals present around their establishments, besides their disapproval of their appearance, they are focusing on the occurrence of panhandling, which is not an activity in which all individuals experiencing homelessness engage but that allows them to collect the money they eventually use in the same establishments that shamelessly discriminate against them
These attitudes, which are replicated all over the US and have become part of the public discourse around homelessness, are specially baffling because when, given the scenario where a group of volunteers from organization is soliciting money in a public street in order to provide assistance to people victim of humanitarian disasters in different parts of the world, permits are issued and business owners do not express fear nor disapproval over this. But when a person, in the flesh, is standing on the same street soliciting money to quench their thirst or calm their hunger somehow this is such an offense that they are dismissed, removed or, worse, charged for showing the public their need and for daring to ask for help to overcome it, for at least one meal at the time.
San Diego officials should reconsider shutting down these facilities. Going forward with this decision sends a clear message that the needs of homeless individuals are irrelevant and that their presence in public spaces is not desirable. These abhorrent practices do nothing but further make clear the bias that both state forces and the general public have against homeless individuals and the crime that is to be or perceived to be homeless.
Just last year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed concern over the criminalization of homelessness in the United States saying that these practices were considered “discrimination and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” in clear contravention of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States is party. Furthermore, the Human Rights Committee exhorted the US to “abolish criminalization of homelessness laws and policies at state and local levels” calling upon law enforcement “to find solutions for the homeless in accordance with human rights standards” as well as recommending the provision of financial support to alternatives to criminalization.
We hope they follow through.
Carlos Perez Rojas.