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UC Berkeley study shows public toilets decreases public defecation

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People's Park activist Lisa Teague draws attention to the lack of public restrooms in Berkeley which are critical for unhoused individuals without access to private restrooms.


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OCTOBER 11, 2022

A study published last month by UC Berkeley Public Health researchers found that access to public restrooms reduces reports of public defecation, especially in neighborhoods with people that experience houselessness.

According to campus post-doctoral researcher Heather Amato, who led the study, the addition of 33 public toilets through the San Francisco Public Works Pit Stop program significantly reduced the number of reports of feces on sidewalks near each restroom location each week. 

Amato added that the results were largely attributable to a decrease in feces reports in the Tenderloin neighborhood, although Pit Stop restrooms are in 10 neighborhoods in the city.

“Safe, reliable access to basic services like sanitation and hygiene is absolutely necessary for mental, physical, and social well-being,” Amato said in an email. “Public interventions like the Pit Stop program are a step towards achieving this basic human right for all. It’s the right thing to do.”

People who experience houselessness rely on public restrooms and privately owned business restrooms for their sanitation needs, according to the study, which was co-authored by campus environmental health sciences professor Jay Graham. It added that access to these facilities can be restricted due to discrimination, limited hours of operation, transportation difficulties and customer-only policies at businesses.

Furthermore, the study noted that open defecation presents a public health hazard as it can spread pathogenic infections.

“Public sanitation interventions like the Pit Stop program can be implemented in Berkeley and elsewhere in the Bay where there is a need,” Amato said in the email. “Importantly, public restrooms should always be designed to meet neighborhood-specific needs. For example, some Pit Stop restrooms in San Francisco include safe needle disposal, pet waste bags, and even paid, local attendants for maintenance, cleanliness, and safety.”

In Berkeley, a public bathroom in People’s Park was shut down this year, according to Lisa Teague, a People’s Park activist and formerly unhoused individual. They said that restroom access for park residents has been made more difficult after the restroom had its water shut off and doors welded shut in late July.

Teague also alleged that campus removed port-a-potties and trash cans from the park, noting that campus should work to improve their relationship with the unhoused community at People’s Park.

“You would be stunned at how many bathrooms we really need,” Teague said. “We have none. People got to go and it is not shocking that, when people gotta go and if they don’t have a place, they’ll go where they are.”

Campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof said that while the restroom at People’s Park is closed, campus and the city both helped to construct a new daytime drop-in center “just around the corner” at the First Presbyterian Church, which has multiple restrooms.

Mogulof said that there are now more public restrooms available in the area than there were in the past. 

“People’s Park is a construction site,” Mogulof said. “The people who were there — as they have been told and as we have publicly explained — are violating the law. And the restroom is closed.”

Contact Victor Corona and Natasha Kaye at [email protected].

OCTOBER 11, 2022