“It’s something that benefits everyone”

WICKER PARK – Alderpeople shares more details on what a public restroom pilot program in Chicago could look like.

Introduced last year by Alds. Daniel La Spata (1st) and Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd), the initiative aims to develop a program that would provide free and easily accessible restrooms to Chicagoans.

This would include homeless people who do not have easy access to clean and reliable bathrooms, but also anyone who needs to go.

A Tribune article last year found that fewer than 500 structures in the city “contain free public restrooms with little or no barriers to entry, such as security checkpoints or restricted access for customers” .

Alderpeople discussed what the pilot program might look like during a hearing on the topic on Monday, looking at how other cities are operating public restrooms and challenges unique to Chicago.

“It’s a basic human need. It’s something everyone needs. Yes, we have people who are in higher need because people are homeless or because people have special conditions. But it’s something that benefits everyone, that makes our public spaces more human, and something that I think we need to embrace,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said.

A potential partner for the city could be a company called The Portland Loo, which designs and manufactures stand-alone public restrooms across the country.

Every single-use toilet the company makes can be customized to meet the needs of the surrounding environment, said sales manager Evan Madden.

The City of Chicago would ultimately decide the best locations for the restrooms. La Spata said he had preliminary conversations with the Department of Water Management about where they might possibly connect to the city’s sewers and water lines.

“Toilets really work in a lot of different applications. What’s most common is on city streets or on the corners of parks, just to kind of put them in the rights of way, where people have to pass and engage in the toilets even when they don’t seek to seek them themselves,” Madden mentioned. “If you put it up so it’s open for everyone to see, people also don’t feel encouraged to do things they shouldn’t do in the toilet.”

The company’s restrooms can also include anti-graffiti coating, changing tables, and other customizations, like what the company calls its “cold weather restroom upgrade,” which allows them to operate up to at -20ºF.

Credit: Provided
A slide from a May 16 presentation about a possible public restroom pilot program in Chicago

Aldus. Roderick Sawyer (6th) agreed there was a serious need for more public restrooms in the city, especially for drivers and transit workers.

“I have had conversations with CTA employees who have a particular problem when they are on their bus routes, not having access to adequate facilities. And I’ll be honest with you, especially female bus drivers, especially those who don’t have access. So I think that’s something we should look at,” he said.

La Spata said the pilot program could eventually be funded with money from Chicago’s stimulus package, which is partially funded by federal COVID relief dollars. He also mentioned a possible public-private partnership that would seek grants and other funding.

The program would probably start small. La Spata said other cities have started with three to five toilets, which he would “encourage for Chicago.”

“Let’s be modest about it, really examine and understand how it works in Chicago before we expand much further than that, but it seems doable,” he said.

La Spata also outlined another option for expanding restroom access: partnering with local businesses to allow anyone to use their facilities, whether they’re a paying customer or not.

He mentioned a model in London, England, which pays businesses to keep their bathrooms open to the public.

“Essentially, stores and restaurants give the public access to their restrooms for public benefits, whether it’s free advertising, free window signs that inform the public of this opportunity and access. They receive a financial contribution from the Government of the City of London in return for providing these facilities. So that’s another way of looking at it,” La Spata said.

“There are a lot of different ways to go about it, but it’s a need that’s not going away.”

So far, nineteen aldermen have signed the toilet resolution. He also gained support from organizations such as the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and Breakthrough Urban Ministries.

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