Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, April 10, 2005
by Susan Ives

For the past few weeks I’ve been talking about nothing but toilets. All toilet, all the time.

In February, the City Council passed an ordinance that made public urination and defecation Class C misdemeanors, subject to fines of up to $500.

If this was the only ordinance they passed that night it might have slipped under the radar. After all, civilized people don’t pee in the bushes. But the urination and defecation prohibition came packaged with three other laws: It’s now illegal to sleep outdoors downtown, to panhandle aggressively and to block the sidewalk. Taken together, they criminalize homelessness.

I’ve started hanging out with the other potty mouths, activists who recognize that we all (gasp!) have bodily functions that sometimes manifest themselves at inconvenient times.

Civilized people don’t pee in the bushes. Civilized cities provide public toilets. It’s a two-way social contract. In the year A.D. 315, Rome had 144 public toilets. San Antonio has about 15. We’ve regressed in the last two millennia.

The homeless people who sleep outdoors are particularly hard-hit by this ordinance, as there is only one public toilet — at Rivercenter mall — that is open 24 hours a day.

Admit it, though: Every one of us has been caught short. Tourists. Late-night revelers. Moms with recently toilet-trained youngsters who haven’t yet grasped the concept of planning ahead. A sudden case of the trots. You didn’t have to go when you left the theater, but by the time you get to the parking garage — what the heck, no one’s looking. Ozzy Osbourne, drunk and dressed as a woman, relieving himself on the Alamo Cenotaph back in 1982.

The Amigos, who assist visitors in the downtown area, say they get asked for the location of the nearest restroom 75 to 100 times a day. The downtown bike patrol and the Park Police report a similar number of requests.

Most public toilets close early — between 4:30 and 5 p.m. After that, you have to depend on the kindness of strangers. Some downtown businesses have signs: “No public restrooms.” Others reserve them for patrons. Some charge a dollar for the use of their facilities. The search for a toilet after hours can be frustrating, expensive and humiliating.

Many public toilets stink. They require frequent cleaning, are subject to vandalism, can be used for criminal activity, such as drug sales, prostitution and other sexually oriented activities, and are generally disliked by neighboring businesses.

But that’s all water under the bridge. Space-age self-cleaning toilets make all of those objections moot.

City leaders have installed 25 of them in San Francisco, four in Seattle, eight in Boston. Los Angeles signed a contract for 150. They have them all over Europe. There’s one in Pittsburgh, installed by San Antonio’s own Clear Channel Ashdel, the media conglomerate’s “street furniture” division.

Here’s how they work. On the outside they are attractive, free-standing kiosks. You insert your quarter (those who can’t afford it can pick up tokens from nearby nonprofits), and the doors open. All are handicapped-accessible and most have other amenities, such as changing tables for babies.

A sensor detects your presence and the doors shut. They stay closed for a pre-programmed amount of time, typically 15 or 20 minutes. You can, of course, leave earlier, but if your business is complicated you get fair warning when the doors are scheduled to open.

This is the gee-whiz part. When you leave, the doors close and the entire unit is disinfected using a high-pressure washing system; it uses about 13 gallons of water for each “super flush.” The hose-down takes a couple of minutes, and then the squeaky-clean unit is ready for the next patron.

My fellow potty mouths, known as the Ad Hoc Committee for Public Amenities, figure that we need 10 public toilets that are open 24 hours in the downtown area. They’ll cost about $2 million. This is one issue that we can’t let the City Council flush out of the agenda.

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