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Occupational hazard: Where's the toilet?

Posted: October 27, 2011 - 12:06am

Occupations such as those under way in cities across the country pose staggering logistical problems. Large numbers of people must be fed and kept reasonably warm and dry. Trash has to be removed; medical care and rudimentary security provided. But for the individual occupier, one problem often overshadows everything else: Where am I going to pee?

Some of the Occupy Wall Street encampments spreading across the U.S. have access to portable toilets (such as those on the City Hall lawn in Los Angeles) or, better yet, restrooms with sinks and running water (as in Fort Wayne, Ind.). Others require their residents to forage on their own. At Zuccotti Park, just blocks from Wall Street, this means long waits for the restrooms at a nearby Burger King or a Starbucks. At McPherson Square in D.C., a twentysomething occupier showed me the pizza parlor where she can cop a pee during the hours it’s open, as well as the alley where she crouches late at night. Anyone with restroom-related issues — arising from age, pregnancy, prostate problems or irritable bowel syndrome — should prepare to join the revolution in diapers.

Of course, political protesters are not alone in facing the challenges of urban camping. Homeless people confront the same issues every day: how to scrape together meals, keep warm at night by covering themselves with cardboard or tarps, and relieve themselves without committing a crime. Public restrooms are sparse in American cities — “as if the need to go to the bathroom does not exist,” travel expert Arthur Frommer once observed. And yet to yield to bladder pressure is to risk arrest. A report titled “Criminalizing Crisis,” to be released this month by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, recounts the following story from Wenatchee, Wash:

“Toward the end of 2010, a family of two parents and three children that had been experiencing homelessness for a year and a half applied for a two-bedroom apartment. The day before a scheduled meeting with the apartment manager during the final stages of acquiring the lease, the father of the family was arrested for public urination. The arrest occurred at an hour when no public restrooms were available for use. Due to the arrest, the father was unable to make the appointment with the apartment manager and the property was rented out to another person. As of March 2011, the family was still homeless and searching for housing.”

As the Occupy Wall Streeters are beginning to discover, and homeless people have known all along, many ordinary and biologically necessary activities are illegal when performed in American streets — not just urinating but sitting, lying down and sleeping. In Sarasota, Fla., for example, it is illegal for someone to sleep in public if, when awakened, he says he has “no other place to live.”

Such prohibitions on homelessness began to take shape in the 1980s, along with the ferocious growth of the financial industry — Wall Street and all its tributaries throughout the nation. That was also the era in which we stopped being a nation that manufactured much beyond weightless, invisible “financial products,” leaving the old industrial working class to carve out a livelihood at places like Walmart.

No one has yet tallied all the suffering occasioned by this crackdown — the deaths from cold and exposure — but “Criminalizing Crisis” offers this story about a homeless pregnant woman in Columbia, S.C.:

“During daytime hours, when she could not be inside of a shelter, she attempted to spend time in a museum and was told to leave. She then attempted to sit on a bench outside the museum and was again told to relocate. In several other instances, still during her pregnancy, the woman was told that she could not sit in a local park during the day because she would be “squatting.” In early 2011, about six months into her pregnancy, the homeless woman began to feel unwell, went to a hospital, and delivered a stillborn child.”

So far, the occupation encampments of the “American autumn” have been treated with far more official forbearance. L.A.’s skid row endures constant police harassment, and the city had to be taken to court to “win” the right for homeless people to sleep on sidewalks between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. But when it rained, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had ponchos distributed to nearby Occupy L.A. protesters.

Still, what occupiers from all walks of life are discovering, at least every time they contemplate taking a leak, is that to be homeless in America is to live like a fugitive. The destitute are our own native-born “illegals,” facing prohibitions on the most basic activities of survival. And because many of the occupiers are looking at walks of life that slope downward — from debt, joblessness and foreclosure — they are getting a frightening view of what their futures could hold.

In Portland, Austin and Philadelphia, the Occupy Wall Street movement is taking up the cause of the homeless as its own, which of course it is. Homelessness is not a side issue unconnected to plutocracy and greed. It’s where we all could be headed — the 99 percent, or at least the 70 percent, of us, every debt-laden college grad, out-of-work schoolteacher and impoverished senior — unless this revolution succeeds.

• Ehrenreich is the author of “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.”

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