DOWNTOWN LA — There’s a wait for the bathroom at Pershing Square station at 5th and Hill streets in Downtown LA three blocks from Skid Row. A large-scale mural featuring the face of a Tongva girl and Kobe Bryant lifting his arms in victory towers overhead. This is the busiest public bathroom in the city, averaging 148 flushes per day, from 2018 to 2021.
E, who volunteers his time to keep the bathroom clean, says there aren’t enough toilets in the area for the number of people who need them.
“You’re gonna have people urinating the best way they can, because some got bladder conditions, others got kidney conditions — they can’t hold their stuff.”
He added, “It should be a census like, to see how many people in the area, and say, ‘Okay, this is how many [toilets] it requires for this area.”
The city of LA, notoriously, only has 14 permanent public bathrooms on the sidewalk for almost 4 million people, installed and maintained by street furniture company JCDecaux (this figure doesn’t include park or library toilets, etc. which are operated by different departments). Last year, the city took over the existing freestanding bathrooms and replaced all the units. But despite the upcoming 2028 Olympic Games, and a motion passed by the City Council to plan a new, expanded public toilet program, the greatest obstacle to getting more bathrooms remains the city’s anti-homeless bigotry.
Unhoused people are vilified for leaving behind human waste. But this denies a basic biological reality: if people on the street have no place to go, they will shit in the street.
“They’re not gonna poop on theirself because it’s more embarrassing,” said E. “So they’d rather get sighted by people seeing them poop, instead of pooping on themselves, and having everybody smell them.”
Why we can’t have nice things: a history of removing bathrooms or refusing to build them
The history of public bathrooms in America is one of exclusion — a proxy for debate about who constitutes “the public,” explains toilet scholar Bryant Simon. In the 1910s, cities built opulent public bathrooms and bragged about luxurious features like “marble finishes and terra cotta floors,” he told The Frisc. But these fancy fixtures were not intended for women, poor people, or people of color.
In LA, toilets have functioned as an example of what writer Heather McGhee calls drained-pool politics — when some cities were forced to racially-integrate their public pools, they chose to drain them instead. Rather than provide safe, clean bathrooms for all, the city has removed bathrooms or failed to build them in the first place.
From the beginning, people who lacked privacy sought privacy in public bathrooms, says Simon, including working class men who wanted to have sex with other men. Predictably, cities cracked down on the drugs and sex happening in public toilets and started shutting down public facilities instead of building new ones.
Los Angeles has a particularly fraught bathroom history, especially in Downtown. In Skid Row from the late ‘80s to the mid ‘90s, activists fought to put porta-potties on the streets of Skid Row only to have then-Mayor Tom Bradley block funding or promptly have them removed in a protracted battle that would have been farcical were the public health consequences not so dire.
Then, in 1996, toilet activists from the LA Catholic Worker reached a détente with Mayor Richard Riordan, when he allowed 26 porta-potties to be placed in Skid Row. They were reviled by the Downtown business community. In 2005, LA Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote a lurid account of five of the porta-potties being used for drugs and sex work. Those toilets and those at two other locations were hauled away. By 2006, the city had removed all remaining porta-potties, under Mayor Antonio Villagarosa, as part of the “Safer Cities Initiative,” a nearly decade-long effort to remove unhoused people from the streets of Skid Row through broken windows policing.
By the late 1990s, business and city leaders were exploring how to make public urination and defecation officially a crime, but were advised by then city attorney (and future mayor) James Hahn that unless they could show that bathroom facilities were available, it would be difficult to prosecute offenders. The solution: a 20-year contract with JCDecaux that was supposed to bring 150 self-cleaning, freestanding public toilets to the streets of LA in exchange for the lucrative right to advertise on bus shelters and other street furniture. The contract soon fell apart, leaving LA with only 15 of the promised toilets (one of which was later removed). In 2003, before the first toilet was installed, the city criminalized public urination and defecation with the passing of LA Municipal Code 41.47.2.
Five of the new toilets were placed in Skid Row. As the unhoused population grew, instead of building more bathrooms, the city cracked down by shutting them down, citing crime as the reason. By 2017, all five were shut down overnight, by request of the LAPD. In 2012, LA Community Action Network published “The Dirty Divide,” chronicling a history of organized abandonment in Skid Row, including public toilets that often were out-of-order, strewn with trash or lacking toilet paper and soap.
In 2017, a coalition of nonprofits and community stakeholders published a report called No Place to Go, chronicling the lack of bathroom access in Skid Row. In a comparison that soon went viral, the report noted that there were fewer available toilets in the neighborhood than the number required for a U.N. refugee camp. At night, there were only nine toilets for almost 1,800 people living outside. In September 2017, LA County declared a hepatitis A outbreak (the disease spreads through fecal contamination and unhoused people are highly at risk).
Publicly humiliated on an international scale, the city of LA moved quickly. By December 2017, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office had opened the ReFresh Spot in Skid Row, a hygiene center with seven toilets, six showers, and 24 washer-dryer pairs.
Although there are more available city-sponsored public toilets in Skid Row today with an estimated 31 available 24-hours a day (10 are porta-potties), there are also over 50% more unsheltered people, according to the 2022 LAHSA count. Those numbers are likely even higher today. According to the 2023 count, homelessness increased by 9% in LA County and 10% in the city of LA.
Public bathrooms and social heebie-jeebies
From the beginning of public bathrooms, municipalities have cited sex and drugs as reasons for shutting them down. But Laura Norén, co-editor of Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing, believes that these fears are mostly symbolic, a “clearinghouse” of the “heebie-jeebies” that people have about race, class or gender.
“You do a very private thing in a public place. When you use the bathroom, you take your clothes off in public.” Public bathrooms are a “fraught” place, Norén says, “because people don’t like to feel vulnerable.”
Moral panics around bathrooms go back to at least the 1930s, when law enforcement cracked down on working class men seeking sex with other men. In a way, public bathrooms are trying to accomplish the impossible by providing privacy for bodily elimination without invoking social shame or stigma.
“Privacy itself is a commodity that isn’t equally distributed,” said Simon. “And those without privacy, have sought privacy wherever they could find it. And then they become defined as the problem.”
The Portland Loo is a piece of street furniture, a free-standing public bathroom, that attempts to solve the problem of sex and drugs in the bathroom. It was “built by committee,” according to Evan Madden, Portland Loo sales manager — but not by a committee of future Portland Loo users.
Rather, the Loo was designed for the people who clean, maintain and police it. This means that while the user has some privacy inside the bathroom, the top and bottom have open-air slats. It was created to be “not a comfortable place for the occupant,” said Madden, who called the Loo “prison-proof,” in an interview.
“It’s not meant to be lived in is probably what I’m trying to say without saying it,” he added, when asked about how the toilet was not meant to be comfortable.
The larger debate: do people matter?
Public bathrooms are not just a political battle but also an ideological one. Is access to a toilet a human right?
“It’s not inexpensive to build a vast array of public bathrooms,” said Simon. “It also says that people matter. And that you care about them, right? And you care about their bodies and you care about their ability to kind of walk through space and use space.”
In her effort to bring Angelenos inside as part of her “Inside Safe” program, it’s unclear if Mayor Bass will support or fund more public toilets, temporary or permanent. When asked about a new ReFresh Spot (which Mayor Garcetti’s office drew up a proposal for last year), her staff did not respond to a request for comment.
In April, LA Taco reported that funding was running out for the porta-potties deployed by the Unified Homeless Response Center at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is funding allocated for continued deployment of the portable restrooms and handwashing stations,” said spokesperson Clara Karger in an email, referencing the 73 units (36 ADA porta-potties and 37 hand washing stations) currently deployed at unhoused encampments around the city. “The Mayor’s Office is working with departments to help ensure that the facilities continue to be deployed and maintained.”
If LA does get more bathrooms, they might not be intended for everyone.
“I actually think you will get more bathrooms in LA, but they will not be bathrooms that are imagined to serve the larger population. I think you’re going to get bathrooms to contain the homeless,” said Simon.
“Bathrooms are always used to manage people and manage bodies. And the homeless in LA are the bodies that are out of control to those in power.”