Monday, May 20, 2024

People complain about the homeless urinating in plain view, but the city has virtually abandoned the idea of providing public bathrooms.

There was a toilet committee in December 2003 that discussed putting in public toilets here and there — Harvard Square was one proposed location — but nothing came of it.

The public toilet issue had been reviewed for two years, Cambridge health chief Harold Cox said at the time, an issue that came up because the homeless population and tourists had a need.

The city insisted on a “revenue neutral” proposal that would have involved putting advertisements on the outhouses, officials said, and Cox noted that toilet vendors wanted a good market for ads as well. Officials last night couldn’t clarify why the city and the public-toilet vendors disagreed on the opportunities presented by Cambridge.

Putting aside the issue of freestanding public toilets, city officials agreed that public buildings would be designed with public bathrooms.

But the private sector — not to mention the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority — has not been as energetic as the city, which itself has moved slowly on the issue.

“We are still exploring public bathrooms. There are public safety issues. There are maintenance issues. But the city has not given up on it,” vice mayor Marjorie Decker said at last night’s meeting of the City Council. “There is a strong need for it. A civilized community must have access to bathrooms.”

Two years later after the toilet committee was in full swing — which makes it four years since the city has been studying the problem — and people on diuretic medication for high blood pressure might have to think twice before taking their medication in town, and tourist children might have to drink less juice during their jaunts along the avenue.

What does someone without access to a bathroom in Cambridge do when nature calls?

Run to the nearest city-owned building, said vagrants sunbathing in front of City Hall yesterday, going inside the building to use the city’s bathrooms whenever they felt the urge.

Across the street, at 678 Massachusetts Ave., construction workers were feeling magnanimous enough to temporarily remove the padlock from their portable toilet at Magazine Street so those on the street could use it if they had to.

“It’s only temporary,” one of the contractors from New England Restoration said, looking down from scaffolding. “When this building is done, it’s gone.”

A few days earlier they had the toilet roped off and shouted at anyone who dared to use it, telling citizens  they could go urinate in the street if they had to, for all they cared, but not to use their toilet.

When the construction workers knocked off yesterday, they put the padlock back on their toilet.

One homeless man scoffed at the workers’ attitude. The man, who asked not to be identified, said he recently served three months in prison for indecent exposure just because he had to empty his bladder.

Police say that as soon as someone is caught urinating, they have probable cause to make an arrest. And make no mistake, they will, police said last weekend.

The urination problem in Cambridge has many people angry.

“Even some restaurants won’t let you use the bathroom,” one homeless person said yesterday, adding that “90 percent of the places you go to eat, you can’t use the bathroom.”