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Alderpeople Fight For Public Restroom Pilot: ‘This Is Something That Benefits Everybody’

Last year, the Chicago Tribune found that fewer than 500 structures in the city “contain free public restrooms with few or no barriers to entry, such as security checkpoints or client-only access.”

Public restrooms are hard to find in Chicago. A group of alderpeople is working to change that.
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WICKER PARK — Alderpeople are sharing more details of what a public restroom pilot program could look like in Chicago.

Introduced last year by Alds. Daniel La Spata (1st) and Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd), the initiative aims to develop a program that would provide free, easily-accessible restrooms for people across Chicago.

That would include unhoused individuals who don’t have easy access to clean, reliable bathrooms, but also anyone who has to go.

A Tribune story last year found that fewer than 500 structures in the city “contain free public restrooms with few or no barriers to entry, such as security checkpoints or client-only access.”

Alderpeople discussed what the pilot program could look like in a subject matter hearing Monday, looking at how other cities operate public restrooms and challenges unique to Chicago.

“This is a basic human need. It’s something that everybody needs. Yes, we have people that have a higher need because people are unhoused, or because people have particular conditions. But this is something that benefits everybody, that makes our public spaces more humane, and something that I think that we need to adopt,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said.

One potential partner for the city could be a company called The Portland Loo, which designs and manufacturers freestanding public restrooms across the country.

Each single-use restroom made by the company can be customized to meet the needs of the surrounding environment, sales manager Evan Madden said.

The city of Chicago would ultimately decide the best locations for the restrooms. La Spata said he’s had preliminary conversations with the Department of Water Management about where they could possibly attach to the city’s sewer and water lines.

“The restroom really works in a lot of different applications. What’s most common is on city streets or the corners of parks, just to kind of put in them in right of ways, where people have to pass and engage with the restroom even when they’re not looking to seek it out themselves,” Madden said. “If you kind of set it in a way that it’s kind of open in the front of everyone’s view, then people don’t feel encouraged to do things they shouldn’t do in the restroom as well too.”

The company’s restrooms can also include an anti-graffiti coating, changing tables and other customizations, like what the company calls its “cold weather toilet upgrade,” which allows them to operate in up to -20 ºF weather.

Credit: Provided
A slide from a presentation on May 16 about a possible public restroom pilot program in Chicago

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) agreed there’s a serious need for more public restrooms around the city, particularly for public transit drivers and employees.

“I’ve had conversations with CTA employees who have a particular problem when they’re on their bus lines, not having access to adequate facilities. And I’ll be honest with you, particularly women bus drivers, especially not having access. So I think this is something that we should be looking at,” he said.

La Spata said the pilot program could possibly be paid for with money from the Chicago Recovery Plan, which is partially funded by federal COVID relief dollars. He also mentioned a possible private-public partnership that would seek grants and other funding.

The program would likely start small. La Spata said other cities have started out with three to five restrooms, which is what he “would encourage for Chicago.”

“Let’s be modest in this, let’s really survey and understand how it functions in Chicago before we spread out much further than that, but that feels doable,” he said.

La Spata also outlined another option to expand restroom access: partnering with local businesses to allow anyone to use their facilities, regardless if they’re a paying customer or not.

He pointed to a model in London, England, which pays businesses to keep their bathrooms open to the public.

“Essentially shops and restaurants give the public access to their restrooms for public benefits, whether that is free publicity, free window signs that notify the public about this opportunity and access. They receive a financial contribution from the city government of London in exchange for providing these facilities. So that is another way potentially to look at it,” La Spata said.

“There are a lot of different ways to go about this, but this is a need that is not going to go away.”

Nineteen alderpeople have signed on to the restroom resolution so far. It’s also garnered support from organizations like Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and Breakthrough Urban Ministries.

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