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Occupational hazard: Where's the toilet?

Occupy L.A. protesters and those at demonstrations like it are finding out what homeless people in the U.S. have long known: Sometimes it's difficult to relieve yourself without committing a crime.

October 23, 2011|By Barbara Ehrenreich
  • Demonstrators with 'Occupy Wall Street' continue their protest at Zuccotti Park in New York on Oct. 21. The encampment in the financial district of New York City is now in its second month. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP/Getty Images)
Demonstrators with 'Occupy Wall Street' continue their protest…

Occupations such as those underway in cities across the country pose staggering logistical problems. Large numbers of people must be fed and kept reasonably warm and dry. Trash has to be removed; medical care and rudimentary security provided. But for the individual occupier, one problem often overshadows everything else: Where am I going to pee?

Some of the Occupy Wall Street encampments spreading across the U.S. have access to portable toilets (such as those on the City Hall lawn in Los Angeles) or, better yet, restrooms with sinks and running water (as in Ft. Wayne, Ind.). Others require their residents to forage on their own. At Zuccotti Park, just blocks from Wall Street, this means long waits for the restrooms at a nearby Burger King or a Starbucks. At McPherson Square in D.C., a twentysomething occupier showed me the pizza parlor where she can cop a pee during the hours it's open, as well as the alley where she crouches late at night. Anyone with restroom-related issues — arising from age, pregnancy, prostate problems or irritable bowel syndrome — should prepare to join the revolution in diapers.

Of course, political protesters are not alone in facing the challenges of urban camping. Homeless people confront the same issues every day: how to scrape together meals, keep warm at night by covering themselves with cardboard or tarps, and relieve themselves without committing a crime. Public restrooms are sparse in American cities — "as if the need to go to the bathroom does not exist," travel expert Arthur Frommer once observed. And yet to yield to bladder pressure is to risk arrest. A report titled "Criminalizing Crisis," to be released this month by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, recounts the following story from Wenatchee, Wash:

"Toward the end of 2010, a family of two parents and three children that had been experiencing homelessness for a year and a half applied for a two-bedroom apartment. The day before a scheduled meeting with the apartment manager during the final stages of acquiring the lease, the father of the family was arrested for public urination. The arrest occurred at an hour when no public restrooms were available for use. Due to the arrest, the father was unable to make the appointment with the apartment manager and the property was rented out to another person. As of March 2011, the family was still homeless and searching for housing."

As the Occupy Wall Streeters are beginning to discover, and homeless people have known all along, many ordinary and biologically necessary activities are illegal when performed in American streets — not just urinating but sitting, lying down and sleeping. In Sarasota, Fla., for example, it is illegal for someone to sleep in public if, when awakened, he says he has "no other place to live."

Such prohibitions on homelessness began to take shape in the 1980s, along with the ferocious growth of the financial industry — Wall Street and all its tributaries throughout the nation. That was also the era in which we stopped being a nation that manufactured much beyond weightless, invisible "financial products," leaving the old industrial working class to carve out a livelihood at places like Wal-Mart.

As it turned out, the captains of the new "casino economy" — the stockbrokers and investment bankers — were highly sensitive, one might say finicky, individuals, easily offended by having to step over the homeless in the streets or pass by them in commuter train stations. In an economy where a centimillionaire could turn into a billionaire overnight, the poor and unwashed were a major buzz kill. Starting with Mayor Rudy Giuliani's New York, city after city passed "broken windows" or "quality of life" ordinances that made it dangerous for the homeless to loiter or, in some cases, even look "indigent" in public spaces.

No one has yet tallied all the suffering occasioned by this crackdown — the deaths from cold and exposure — but "Criminalizing Crisis" offers this story about a homeless pregnant woman in Columbia, S.C.:

"During daytime hours, when she could not be inside of a shelter, she attempted to spend time in a museum and was told to leave. She then attempted to sit on a bench outside the museum and was again told to relocate. In several other instances, still during her pregnancy, the woman was told that she could not sit in a local park during the day because she would be 'squatting.' In early 2011, about six months into her pregnancy, the homeless woman began to feel unwell, went to a hospital, and delivered a stillborn child."

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