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Shortage of Seattle public bathrooms creating wave of waste

Seattle's Navigation Teams cleans up a homeless encampment in Northgate in January 2019. (Carolyn Ossorio, KIRO Radio)

A shortage of public bathrooms in Seattle, paired with a rising tide of people living outside, has created a wave of waste: This year so far, Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) cleaners have responded to 6,456 reports of human feces just in the retail core of downtown, which already exceeds the entirety of incidents last year.

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Members of Seattle City Council have moved on a solution, allocating almost $1.3 million in next year’s proposed city budget to buy and staff five “mobile bathroom facilities.” Don’t imagine port-a-potties: These would be bathrooms on wheels, with hand-washing stations, needle disposal, and a staff person to clean them and make sure no one sleeps or uses drugs inside.

City Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Lisa Herbold have similar proposals.

“The idea is for this program to be run publicly by the city; the city will buy the specialized bathrooms, and the city will drive and service them,” Kshama Sawant said. “This also means some public sector unionized jobs.”

The latest homeless count for Seattle/King County showed that there are 11,199 people experiencing homelessness countywide. Of those counted, an estimated 2,451 individuals were in families with children, 1,089 were unaccompanied youth, 830 were veterans, and 32 percent were identified as people of color.

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In a city where discussions around homelessness became very divisive in the run-up to the 2019 city council elections, the Board of Health declared homelessness a public health disaster over a year ago. Advocates for the toilets hoped this budget item would unite people on both sides of the issue.

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