When you gotta go, you gotta go, a necessity for people of every age, race, ability and economic situation.
For those visiting and hanging out in downtown Asheville, however, answering the call of nature is often inconvenient or simply impossible, especially since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered many public and privately owned facilities last March.
But as with so many problems that affect us all, this one impacts people experiencing homelessness far more.
Of the various downtown bathroom options available prior to the pandemic, only the city-owned facility at 29 Haywood St. was available 24/7, says Jean Gibbs, who has been without permanent housing in Asheville for two years. Since it closed, Gibbs and others who are unsheltered have had few options.
At night, “We have nowhere to go, and it’s horrible,” says Gibbs, 44. “[The shelter at] ABCCM is locked at night, so we can’t go there. The one at Haywood Congregation, the door is broken.”
While some facilities have reopened in the months since the pandemic began, the 29 Haywood St. restroom has not. If and when it does resume operation, city officials say they’re unlikely to provide around-the-clock access.
“They’re basically leaving the homeless to use the bathroom in the street,” Gibbs says — a situation that poses health, sanitation and quality-of-life problems for everyone who lives, works or visits downtown.
The city of Asheville acquired the 29 Haywood St. property in 1989, going on to use it as office space. In 2007, the building’s restrooms opened to the public Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m., according to Dana Frankel, the city’s downtown specialist. When the Asheville Police Department created a new downtown unit in 2014, officers moved into space in the building.
In the years that followed, homelessness activists and downtown business owners began advocating for expanded restroom hours, noting the lack of other options. At night, that meant that people had to go where they could — sometimes in stairwells or alleys.
City Council approved funding for 24-hour restroom operation in 2018, more than doubling the cost of maintaining the facility to nearly half a million dollars per year.
While the increased access was hailed by human service providers and business interests alike, it also opened the door to property damage and illegal activity.
“We had some issues,” Frankel says, recalling one incident in which a sink was ripped from the bathroom wall.
According to the city’s crime database, the block on which 29 Haywood St. is located experienced a 128% increase in service calls between 2018 and 2019, the year following the expansion of restroom hours. Drug-related calls went up 400% over the same period.
Meanwhile, in response to a large number of officer resignations, the APD consolidated its downtown and South Asheville districts, says Christina Hallingse, spokesperson for the department. The 29 Haywood St. substation closed in fall 2020.
Frankel maintains that the Police Department’s move didn’t contribute to the city’s decision to delay the reopening of the building’s restroom facilities. While no final decision has been made, she says, “If and when they do reopen, it will likely be under limited hours of operation.”
Following the COVID-19-related closure of public restrooms at 29 Haywood St., Pack Square Park and the downtown transit station on Coxe Avenue last March, the city installed portable toilets and hand-washing stations in Pritchard Park and elsewhere (see sidebar, “Where to ‘go’”).
While grateful for that stopgap measure, Jean Gibbs says the facilities don’t replace what’s been lost. “They need to keep the 24-hour bathroom open that has running water,” she says. “I know that some folks need to take more personal care and not rip the bathrooms up, but the city needs to do something. Not all of us are bad. And we all deserve something clean to use.”
Guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention echoes Gibbs’ view of the importance of access to running water for people who are unsheltered during the pandemic. “Ensure nearby restroom facilities have functional water taps, are stocked with hand hygiene materials (soap, drying materials) and bath tissue, and remain open to people experiencing homelessness 24 hours per day,” the CDC’s website instructs local officials.
Limited bathroom options can also lead to legal trouble, adds the Rev. Amy Cantrell, co-director of advocacy organization BeLoved Asheville, and the consequences can go beyond misdemeanor charges. “It can be considered a sex crime, public urination, and we know that that’s dramatically different than other crimes in that category,” she explains. “It can affect people’s housing and employment.”
Loo-king to the future
Asheville is far from alone among cities in its struggle to provide access to bathroom facilities. New York, for example, has only one public restroom for every 11,707 people, according to a 2020 study from the UNC School of Law.
Portland, Ore., developed a freestanding solution — known as the Portland Loo — that’s been deployed in over 20 cities to meet the needs of different users in the urban environment. The 7-by-10-foot structure provides enough room for a wheelchair, bike or stroller; its single toilet connects directly to the sewer line. There are no mirrors, and blue interior lighting makes it difficult for intravenous drug users to find a vein for injection. Hand-washing facilities are provided outside the structure.
“It’s a lot of the issues that we deal with that these facilities were designed for,” Frankel says. Though plans are “not quite ready for prime time,” she reveals that the city is studying the possibility of installing something similar downtown.
The community will have a chance to weigh in before any final decisions are reached, Frankel emphasizes. “We want to engage with the community to make sure that it’s something that people want and would welcome,” she says. “We think that it would be an important service to provide for various user groups and so we are taking steps in that direction.”
The loos don’t come cheap: Getting a unit up and running costs about $300,000. Then come the bills for ongoing management, maintenance and repair. San Diego removed one toilet structure in 2016, just over a year after it was installed, citing a 130% increase in police service calls to the area. City officials also said maintenance and repair costs were more than double initial estimates, according to a report from The San Diego Union-Tribune.
“I hear pretty frequently about the need and I do understand that it’s a priority for downtown businesses,” Frankel explains. “It still takes prioritization and funding.”
Meghan Rogers confirms that increasing the number of public restrooms downtown has topped the list of local priorities (second only to parking) throughout her nine years as executive director of the Asheville Downtown Association.
“I get the question almost every day of where people can find public restrooms. To me, that says that there is a need,” says Rogers, whose office is located at 29 Haywood St., adjacent to the now-closed facility. “We’ve had multiple conversations with the city and have indicated that we would like to see more options for people.”
Anya Tucker, 20, works part time at Ben & Jerry’s on Haywood Street. Customers ask where they can find a restroom “about 10 times a day — on a slow day,” she says.
With the 29 Haywood restrooms closed, Tucker directs customers to the portable toilets in Pritchard Park. “But, you know, moms would look at me while pushing a stroller by themselves, and they’d be like, ‘A port-a-potty, really? That’s the best you have?’” she notes.
Could Buncombe County’s occupancy tax revenue — funded by a 6% tax on short-term accommodations and totaling nearly $18.77 million in 2020 — help provide restroom amenities, especially considering the large number of out-of-town visitors that flock to downtown Asheville? State law requires that a quarter of that money be used to support tourism-related capital projects.
No, says Explore Asheville spokesperson Kathi Petersen. She maintains that dedicated public restroom facilities don’t qualify for occupancy-tax funding support, adding that the quasi-governmental Tourism Development Authority can’t say whether the number of public restrooms downtown is adequate for the city’s more than 11 million visitors per year.
“Public restrooms are managed by the city, and we trust they rely on data and other information on usage, maintenance needs and so on, to support their decision-making,” she says.
For Cantrell, it all comes back to basic human needs.
“This is one of the issues that we found that really cuts across every person from every walk of life. It’s one of those things that unites us — that we all need access to restrooms, to that comfort and dignity,” she says.
“This is something that we as a city with lots of people, particularly in our downtown area, need to look at expanding and not compressing or going back to where we were some years ago.”