Seattle’s Public Restroom Crisis: Many “Comfort Stations That Remain Open” Are Closed

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is big into numbers—numbers that show continual improvement, numbers that get bigger (or smaller, if the number is the number of homeless people counted on one night in January), numbers that show that the city acts on the basis of data, not assumptions. The numbers out of the city, under the Durkan administration, bring to mind a graph that only goes up. The mayor has tried to maintain this aura of constant progress even during the COVID epidemic, a time when thousands of homeless people in Seattle are still crammed into congregate shelters (many of them overcrowded) or living in tents in the forest, hoping not to be noticed.

Last week, for example, the mayor’s office claimed that there were 180 public restrooms in the city—a number the mayor’s office later amended to 133, then “more than 128 Seattle Parks comfort stations that remain open for hygiene needs.” Because every previous map produced by the city showed fewer than 100 public restrooms in city parks and community centers combined, I was skeptical about the new numbers and asked for a list. The mayor’s office provided a spreadsheet, and I started checking.

I started by eliminating the redundancies—parks with multiple restrooms, for example, that were previously counted as single restroom sites but that the mayor’s office is now counting two, three, or five times, such as Judkins, Woodland, and Seward Parks.  Removing these “extra” facilities and restoring the city’s previous standard lowers the total number to around 100.

But that doesn’t account for the fact that despite the city’s insistence that all of these restrooms “remain open” to the public, many of them are actually locked or sit, inaccessible, behind construction fencing. Of 27 of the locations on the city’s list (chosen by their geographic proximity rather than any characteristic common to the facilities), eight that I visited personally were closed. Those included restrooms in fairly large urban parks (Cal Anderson); restrooms serving play fields and playgrounds (Brighton Playfield; Madrona Playground); and smaller neighborhood parks (Dr. Blanche Lavizzo). Extrapolating to the rest of the city, it seems likely that far fewer than the 85 or so restrooms the city claimed prior to the COVID epidemic are actually open to the public.

The mayor engaged in a similar sleight of hand with homeless shelters last week, when she claimed that the city and county had opened 1,900 new “temporary housing” spots for “people experiencing homelessness.” I covered this magic trick already—in short, it involves counting existing shelter beds that have been relocated as “new”, counting beds in field hospitals and COVID isolation tents as “temporary housing,” and ignoring any shelter beds that have been lost as some smaller shelters close down—but I want to linger for a moment on why these faulty numbers matter.

It isn’t just that the mayor’s cheerful press releases—the graphs with lines that only go up—paint an inaccurately rosy picture of what’s happening to homeless and unstably housed people during the pandemic. It’s also that the numbers obscure the fact that the city has promised just 95 actual new shelter beds (none of which are “housing”), all of them announced back in early March.  In this way, the displacement of 85 people from the Harborview Hall shelter to make way for a 45-bed COVID recovery site becomes 130 new “temporary housing” units that are counted as part of the 1,900 total.The mayor’s graphs only go up, and her calculator only has a “plus” sign.

The mayor’s office doesn’t just play fast and loose with numbers. They also use words to mislead and obfuscate. Take, for example, the word “options”—as in, “1,900 New Temporary Housing Options,” from the headline of last week’s press release. Field hospitals, emergency isolation tents in suburban parking lots, and shelter beds relocated from downtown Seattle to the King County Airport are not “options.” They are desperate measures appropriate to an increasingly desperate time.

I get the political impulse to “look on the bright side,” create cutesy hashtags and encourage people to meaninglessly bang pots and pans to show their appreciation for the health care workers left vulnerable and unprotected by federal failures to provide protective equipment and tests  But no one would blame the mayor if she provided an honest assessment of the crisis in Seattle, shorn of platitudes and flowery appeals to the Seattle spirit. Some voters might even applaud her for it.

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