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The Politics of Going to the Bathroom

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In his twenty-four years living unhoused in Los Angeles, Robert Garcia spent most of his time worrying about three things: what he was going to eat, where he was going to sleep, and how he was going to pee.

“It’s something you’re very preoccupied with,” he told me by phone. “It’s just something you’re constantly dealing with.” The 50-block Skid Row area of Downtown LA is lined with makeshift encampments, occupied by the largest concentrated homeless population in the United States. But the fifteen thousand people who live there share access to only five portable toilets—which are frequently out of order, short on supplies or locked after sundown.

For residents like Garcia, these provisions are woefully inadequate. He recounted a time a few years back when he had to urinate in the middle of the night, and began doing so as discreetly as possible outside his tent.

“As soon as I start…the police pull up and shine a light on me,” Garcia recalled. “They don’t get out of the car, but they’re looking at me and shining the light, and pointing it at me. They say, ‘you know what you’re doing is illegal, right? We can arrest you and take you to jail, right? And we can have you declared a sexual offender and put you on a list.’”

Garcia’s mind raced—he’d been caught mid-act, there was no denying what he’d been doing. “I tried to be polite and deferential as I could. They have all the power in this situation, and I have no power. I’m just going, ‘well, sir, I’m trying to make the best of a bad situation, I’m sorry, I apologize…I’d rather not be in this situation.’ And as all this is going on, they get another call and just turn their flashing lights on, start laughing and drive away.”

That close call, Garcia knew, could have panned out much worse: a recent survey conducted by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that some 20 to 30 percent of homeless respondents had been cited or arrested for public urination, funneling them into a criminal legal system which threatens to leave them even more destitute, and with less access to housing and employment in the future. And, because California is one of the 13 states that classify public urination as a sex offense, the registry the officer allegedly threatened Garcia with could have made his future prospects of securing employment or housing even worse than they already were.

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