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Why Do We Have to Pay to Pee? Spoiler Alert: It’s Classism and Ableism

I never understood the bathroom being for paying customers only. If I were a small business owner, I would never prevent anyone from needing access to a restroom, especially when “holding it in” is medically dangerous.

With temperatures rising, I have been drinking more water to stay hydrated and, consequently, been going to the bathroom more often. In the downtown area of my college town, many businesses do not have a public restroom or only allow paying customers to use their restroom. I walked to the pharmacy downtown to pick up my medication, but it was closed for lunch. I started walking around downtown, sweating my butt off, to pass the time. I anticipated it being hot outside that day, so I drank a bottle of water before I ran errands. Unfortunately for me, nature was calling, and I had no choice but to answer. I walked over to an ice cream store nearby that I knew has a free restroom. However, it was closed for renovations, so I walked into one of the ten thousand boba tea places in town. Unsurprisingly, the bathroom said “For Paying Customers Only” with their menu having nothing under $5. That’s when I thought, “why should I have to pay for a $5 drink to avoid pissing on the floor?” How can a public restroom be considered public if it is not accessible to everyone?

I started googling why so many businesses had this dangerous pro-UTI-kidney disease-and-even-bladder-burst bathroom policy and was not surprised to discover that many owners do this to prevent unhoused people from loitering around their stores. Many owners are concerned that unhoused people will try to shower in the sink and leave water on the floor, steal toilet paper, charge their phone for hours, do drugs in the stalls, or leave behind paraphernalia.

While these are all presumptuous concerns that apparently apply to all unhoused folx, disabled people should not have to pay the price for societies’ lack of support for unhoused folx. To prevent people from showering in the sink, the government must provide free housing to everyone so that unhoused people are not forced to shower in public sinks. Other countries have put unhoused folx in vacant hotel rooms (which Athens Mutual Aid often does), incentivize companies to hire unhoused folx, and offer other support services. So many politicians promote how tough they are one crime, but a significant amount of violent crime in America is a symptom of poverty. Therefore, unhoused communities are criminalized for committing not only survival crimes (or regulatory offenses), such as sleeping on the street, taking food from grocery stories, and stealing toilet paper from public restrooms, but also endanger the lives of everyone in high-unhoused areas. People would not need to sleep in the streets if they had guaranteed free housing. They would not need to take food from the grocery store or toilet paper from a public restroom if they had a universal income to cover their basic needs. Unhoused people would not have to inflict violence on others to have their basic needs met. With free housing and a universal income, everyone would have access to an outlet at home and have enough money to pay for a phone charger and electricity. They could also do drugs safely in the privacy of their home.

Free public restrooms would support low-income, disabled people. While I was researching this Pay to Pee policy, I came across someone on Reddit that shared their personal experience. actuallyatypical writes, "I have a condition that can cause me to start violently vomiting, as well as occasional fecal incontinence. It’s horribly embarrassing because I can’t control it, but even worse when I try and attempt a day out and encounter entire blocks of shops with these signs. If I need a restroom I actually NEED it. I’ve ended up puking in trash cans and streets, and I just want to be as normal as possible. Some places don’t realize that a bathroom is a legitimate necessity for some people. Bleh."

Many businesses do not realize or do not care that a bathroom is a legitimate necessity for some people, that access to bathrooms is a human right.

What are people doing about this? Well, I’m glad you asked. After some quick research, I found FreePee, a website (and an app) with a worldwide database of free restrooms. However, they only have data on big cities, like Atlanta and Boston. Other websites, like PeePlace, have some options listed for smaller cities, but they are far and few in between. So, what are smaller towns like Athens, GA supposed to do to pee for free?

In New York, Teddy Siegel started a TikTok account, Got2GoNYC, where she posts where to find free public bathrooms and crowdsources tips on other free restrooms. She also leaks access codes to customer-only bathrooms, and she points out ones that are open late and locations with free menstrual products and changing tables. Siegel has also teamed up with ClearPath NYC to create a list of bathrooms for homeless youth and prevent them from being arrested for public urination.

While this example took place in a major city, I believe this approach would still work for smaller cities. Getting Gen Z, the largest age group on TikTok who are notorious for their online activism, involved will be instrumental for this to be successful. Unhoused people to not have dependable access or any access to websites or apps, so a combination of a TikTok account for your city in combination with nonprofits, like ClearPath NYC, will help spread awareness to the general public online and distribute knowledge and resources on free restrooms to unhoused communities. Also, connecting with local business owners can help owners fully understand the complexity of this issue and may lead to more mutual aid opportunities. Feel free to use this and that to gift to your local business owners (at your own risk). Access to free public restrooms benefits everyone, and it will take everyone to make this goal a reality.

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