Signs inform the public about restrooms at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, on Sept. 8, 2021 in Chicago. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
Perched on a milk crate in front of a glossy storefront window on Michigan Avenue, Marcus Carter can quickly identify each of the nearby restrooms one might be able to access at various hours of the day.
It is the type of information people like Carter, who has experienced stretches of homelessness over the last 13 years, learn through sometimes excruciating necessity. Even downtown — an area crowded with tourists, workers, residents and students — there are few publicly run bathrooms, forcing everyone to figure out other options, none of them perfect.
Like food, water and shelter, having a place to expel waste safely and cleanly is among the most basic and vital human needs, one considered a human right by the United Nations. Yet Chicago’s government has failed to provide the public with easy, consistent access to free toilets, and scant information is available about many that do exist.
The Tribune cataloged as many public bathrooms in Chicago as possible and found swaths of the city contain few or none. In the Magnificent Mile shopping district, the Tribune could not identify any publicly maintained toilet facilities from the north side of the Chicago River to Chicago Avenue and from Orleans Street to DuSable Lake Shore Drive.
In addition, few of the city’s public toilet facilities are open overnight. Nearly all of the public restrooms that are accessible 24 hours a day are in police stations, which discourages people reluctant to engage with law enforcement. Regardless, many people are likely unaware the option exists.
Elsewhere in the country, some cities have prioritized increasing access to public restrooms following complaints about open defecation and the spread of diseases. But in Chicago, previous attempts to expand access have met opposition — and Cesar Rodriguez, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s press secretary, said in a statement there are currently “no formal efforts underway to improve public restroom access.”
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The lack of bathrooms affects everyone hoping to participate in the city’s public spaces, but people who are homeless often face additional difficulty because businesses may restrict access to people who can pass as paying customers.
Bonnie Contreras, who spent two years homeless, said many employees at stores would not let her use their restrooms without making a purchase, which was often impossible. She and her fiance sometimes had to use a toilet seat and a bucket at their encampment.
“We need (public restrooms), need them real bad,” said Carter, who got an apartment this spring through a rapid rehousing program but was still panhandling regularly this summer.
One sign of that need: Chicago police officers have issued at least 29,000 tickets for public urination or defecation since 2016. The tickets carry a fine of at least $100 for people who relieve themselves outdoors or on CTA property in a city that provides them with few other options, though the overwhelming majority of those fines go unpaid.
Many of the tickets were issued in predominantly Black and Latino communities on the city’s South and West sides, in areas where police make frequent arrests, according to data from the Chicago Police Department and the Department of Administrative Hearings.
The Tribune also found concentrated ticketing in areas where public restroom needs appear obvious but unmet. Hundreds of tickets for public urination or defecation were issued at or near the CTA Red Line platform next to Wrigley Field, including more than 300 issued by a single officer. Hundreds of tickets were also issued near the CTA’s large “L” station at Roosevelt Road near Soldier Field. None of the approximately 250 restrooms operated by the CTA is available to the public.
“You have so many cities having fewer and fewer public bathrooms,” said Inga Winkler, until recently a lecturer on human rights at Columbia University in New York. “The impact is most directly felt by people who experience homelessness. As a result people are fined and criminalized for their very existence.”
The largest provider of public restrooms in the city is the Chicago Park District. Though many city parks contain one or more public restrooms in field houses, bathhouses or comfort stations, information about locations and hours of operation is often hard to find, and some smaller parks contain no public toilets at all.
In the Uptown neighborhood, the Buttercup Park Advisory Council has for years raised funds to provide a portable toilet in the restroom-free park during the summer months with no help from the Chicago Park District. The effort was driven by a desire to lessen public urination and defecation — an issue that can create public health hazards.
A person pushes a stroller past a portable toilet in Buttercup Park on Sheridan Road in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood. It's funded by a neighborhood group, not the Park District. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)
Terry Kogan, a professor emeritus at the University of Utah’s College of Law whose research focuses on sex separation in public restrooms, said officials often cite cost as a barrier to building and maintaining public sanitation facilities. But Kogan noted government officials already chose to provide and maintain expensive municipal facilities that supply another necessity: clean drinking water.
“What public entities need to understand is that we as human beings need safe, clean restrooms to serve basic needs,” Kogan said. “If it’s expensive, that’s an expense well undertaken.”
No single agency has oversight of public restrooms within Chicago’s city limits, so determining their locations required filing more than a dozen public records requests.
Using these city, county and state records, the Tribune identified fewer than 500 structures that contain free public restrooms with few or no barriers to entry, such as security checkpoints or client-only access, in a city of 2.7 million people.
Nearly 350 of the structures are in public parks, with 79 stand-alone restrooms closing during the colder seasons. Bathrooms can also be found in 23 police stations, 81 libraries, seasonally at nine Forest Preserve areas, at City Hall, at Union Station, along Chicago’s Riverwalk and in the underground Pedway system. Although several unhoused people told the Tribune they frequently use Metra station restrooms, these are technically reserved for ticket holders, according to a department freedom of information officer.
Most agencies that operate public bathrooms did not provide information about number of stalls or hours of operation.
[ Printable guide in English and Spanish: Find a public bathroom in Chicago ]
The average distance between public restrooms is about a third of a mile, or roughly a 6- to 11-minute walk when keeping to streets and sidewalks. But the city’s public restrooms are not spaced out evenly, with some separated by a few hundred yards and others roughly a mile and a half from the next closest public toilet facility in any direction.
Even when a public restroom is nearby, people may not realize it because of the lack of centralized information and signage. While local governments in cities like Seattle, Boston and San Francisco provide online maps locating public restrooms and their operating hours, Chicago does not.
Jeremy Barna, who stays downtown on Michigan Avenue and has been homeless for around four and a half years, said he isn’t aware of any public restrooms in the area where he stays and wishes they existed.
Two people make their way down a stairway into a dark space leading to public restrooms under the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago's Millennium Park. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
Like other unhoused people who spoke with the Tribune, Barna said he primarily relies on bathrooms in private businesses. But sometimes he has been blocked from using restrooms and escorted out, he said, which draws stares and leaves him feeling anxious.
Barna acknowledged that some unhoused people may use drugs in restrooms. But blocking access leaves people in a difficult situation. Sometimes going in an alley is the only option, he said.
“It makes an individual like myself feel like an animal,” Barna said. “Homeless people, even though we might look dirty, we don’t have showers, we’re not smelly animals. We’re still human beings.”
Public urination and defecation can create serious health concerns, and the unhoused are at the highest risk, said Drew Capone, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina who has found norovirus and other pathogens in samples of human excrement left in Atlanta.
“(There are) very limited hand-washing facilities,” Capone said. “If we’re not taking care of the most vulnerable we’re allowing … pathogens to circulate.”
PC Gooden-Smiley, who lives in Uptown, said neighbors grew frustrated enough with finding and cleaning up human excrement near tiny Buttercup Park that the park’s advisory council began paying to place a portable toilet there in 2012.
The problem, she said, stems from neighborhood residents and parkgoers who are unaware of toilets in the nearby Margate Park Fieldhouse or unable or unwilling to walk there, about a third of a mile away. Gooden-Smiley said the Chicago Park District has declined in the past to help provide the portable toilet, citing the inability to monitor it. The advisory council has continued to pay for the toilet on its own, a steep expense for the small group.
“I would love to know why the Park District doesn’t put it into their budget, especially when they want us to activate the park,” said Gooden-Smiley, the council’s president.
Michele Lemons, the Park District’s communications director, said in a statement that the district works with several advisory councils toward funding and securing portable toilets. Past requests from Buttercup Park for a portable toilet were resolved, she said, after the park’s advisory council said it would provide the facility.
The lack of access to public bathrooms, combined with a municipal code that prohibits public urination and defecation regardless of whether a bathroom is available nearby, has resulted in thousands of tickets and arrests, many in low-income areas, and fines that largely go unpaid.
Since January 2016, Chicago police have written more than 29,000 public urination and defecation tickets, according to data provided by the Chicago Police Department. The city’s Department of Administrative Hearings logged an additional 529 public urination tickets in which hearings were held but were not part of the police data.
The department said it does not keep electronic records of the race and ethnicity or home addresses of individuals who are ticketed for public urination, but large numbers of the tickets were issued in predominantly Black and Latino communities on the South and West sides with high percentages of households living in poverty.
Officers are also allowed under the ordinance to make arrests for public urination or defecation, which can result in a punishment of up to 10 days in jail. Chicago police have made roughly 2,400 arrests that included this charge since 2014, with a disproportionate impact on Black people and the unhoused, the Tribune found. Almost nine times as many Black people were arrested on charges that included public urination or defecation than white people during this seven-year period, police data shows.
Of the roughly 50 people who were arrested more than once on public urination or defecation charges, about half provided the court with home addresses of shelters, soup kitchens, other temporary residences like hospitals and rehabilitation centers, single room occupancy buildings or addresses that were nonexistent. The charges were frequently dropped in court.
“We give the tickets, we enforce the law,” said Chicago Police Department spokesperson Don Terry. “We’re not here to judge whether this is worthwhile.”
Aaron Fox, a municipal law attorney who used to work for the city, says disputing the tickets can be tough because the public urination ordinance, like others, does not spell out any acceptable defenses, like being unable to access a restroom.
The majority of issued tickets result in fines, which range from $100 to $1,000, plus administrative court fees. Payments toward the fines have been made in 17% of cases citywide, according to records from the Department of Finance.
In the ZIP code where the most public urination tickets were written, which covers large parts of East and West Garfield Park on the West Side, payments have been made toward just 8% of those tickets. More than half of households living in those community areas make less than $25,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
Unpaid city fines are sent to collections agencies or law firms that continue to try to obtain the fees owed, according to the city Department of Finance.
Rodriguez, the mayor’s press secretary, defended the city ordinance and said the city has implemented reforms to help low-income residents pay tickets through payment plans.
“There is a clear public safety interest in making sure there are consequences for public urination,” his statement said.
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, said he has been working with advocates and residents of an encampment at Belmont and Kedzie avenues on restroom access and other public health matters, like trash pickup. If the government has a public urination ordinance on the books, he said, it needs to ensure people actually have a place to go.
“I think the city should be realistic when looking at what ordinances are being enforced and recognizing that for many people that are experiencing homelessness, they might not even be able to pay the fine,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “So what are we accomplishing then? Let’s work towards real solutions.”
Efforts to solve sanitation problems are complicated by the surprisingly political nature of public toilets. In America, the history of bathrooms in the last century offers a highlight reel of civil rights flashpoints: racial and gender segregation, LGBTQ discrimination, accessibility for people with disabilities and the exclusion of homeless populations.
In the early 1970s, for example, many of Chicago’s toilet stalls were protected by a Nik-O-Lok mechanism that required a dime to open the door. But urinal users were not required to pay anything, creating a gender disparity. At the same time, a national campaign was underway to ban pay toilets.
Chicago passed an ordinance in March 1973 that prohibited payment for use of public toilet stalls, with then-Mayor Richard J. Daley proclaiming he “did it for women’s lib.”
But after pay toilets were banned, many sanitation facilities began to disappear altogether, with crime as another contributing factor. Some public restrooms were boarded up, while others, like those run by the CTA, simply stopped allowing the public to use them.
By 1987, public toilet issues had again drawn the attention of City Council. That year, 9th Ward Ald. Robert Shaw pushed unsuccessfully to require the CTA to reopen its restroom facilities and to require gas stations to provide lavatories to the public. The Illinois Gasoline Dealers Association objected, citing added costs, and efforts to open CTA restrooms garnered little support.
Some help for members of medically vulnerable communities arrived in the form of a 2005 law that required businesses to open their restrooms to people with certain conditions.
The previous year, a teenage Allyson Bain was at a Norridge Old Navy store with her mother when symptoms of Crohn’s disease struck and Bain needed a restroom immediately. But the store manager denied her access and Bain had an accident in the store, which she said was a humiliating experience.
After that incident, Bain worked with former state Rep. Kathleen Ryg, D-Vernon Hills, to enact the law, versions of which now exist in more than a dozen states across the country.
But more than 15 years after the law was passed, Bain — now a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois — said she still hears stories about people who suffer from intestinal diseases being denied restroom access.
Last July, Lincolnshire resident Elita Schallman was shopping for a mattress with her husband in downtown Chicago when she felt the familiar pain of her colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease she has dealt with for more than 30 years.
Schallman was prepared. She had her medical cards and proof of her disease on hand, plus she knew Starbucks had stated online that people covered under the 2005 law could use restrooms closed to others because of COVID-19. But at a Starbucks shop on Chicago Avenue, workers and a manager told her the restrooms were closed and denied access, Schallman said.
Elita Schallman, who suffers from colitis, uses the restroom before picking up items at Sunset Foods in suburban Lake Forest in September. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)
After several painful minutes of begging, plus additional pressure from Schallman’s husband, the restroom was finally unlocked, but the experience was deeply upsetting.
Schallman filed a complaint with the city of Chicago’s Commission on Human Relations after the incident. The Illinois attorney general’s office informed Starbucks managers and staff in a letter of their obligations under the law, according to correspondence Schallman shared with the Tribune.
“We do not have enough public bathrooms, nor do we have enough information out there so these people are aware that we are entitled to use a bathroom,” Schallman said.
Winkler said she has seen restroom infrastructure take a back seat in cities and towns all over the country despite America’s resources and knowledge about how to deal with sanitation. The public restroom problems in Chicago “are not isolated problems but really part of a much more systemic failure,” she said.
“I really think this is not just human rights, but also civil rights, and points to the legacy of discrimination in our country,” said Ron Hochbaum, who published research last year on public restrooms and homelessness in 10 cities in the United States. “Bathrooms are always used by people in power, insiders, as a means of marginalizing outside groups.”
In Atlanta, the city’s mass transportation system provides several restrooms at popular hubs and the end of its train lines. In Denver, an online map of public toilets includes hours of facilities, barriers to entry and information about whether an attendant is stationed at the restroom.
In San Francisco, which has a large population of unhoused people, public officials began revamping and adding more public toilets in 2014 and 2015 to curb problems with public urination and defecation. To solve a safety problem in the city’s stand-alone restroom facilities, city officials added staffing through a job training program for people exiting the prison system, said Beth Rubenstein, deputy director of policy and communications with San Francisco Public Works. And to add more capacity, a “Pit Stop Program” was launched to bring semi-permanent portable toilets to key locations with attendants on site.
The benefit is worth the cost, Rubenstein said. All types of people are using the restrooms, she said, and public urination and defecation have decreased.
“We definitely feel like it’s a service that we must provide,” Rubenstein said. “By having the portable toilets we feel like we’re actually addressing the issue of the need for people to go to the bathroom. If you’re cleaning up the sidewalk, you’re just dealing with the symptom.”
The city council in Washington, D.C., passed an act in 2019 attempting to improve access to sanitation throughout the district. The city now is in the process of piloting a program that would incentivize businesses who open and advertise their restrooms as public, modeled after a program in England called the Community Toilet Scheme, plus piloting the placement of two always-open, low-maintenance public restrooms in high-need locations.
“The stand-alones are really helpful in areas where you have pedestrian traffic 24/7, when you have the need not just during the day but at night,” said Marcia Bernbaum, a mentor and adviser to the People for Fairness Coalition’s Downtown DC public restroom initiative.
Umit Gurun, a finance and accounting professor who in 2020 researched the impact of Starbucks’ decision to open its stores’ restrooms to the public, said it’s important for government to offer incentives if they rely on businesses to provide a public service.
Though he and his colleagues found fewer citations for public urination and defecation near Starbucks locations after the policy change, they also found Starbucks paid a price: Stores saw less foot traffic compared with other nearby coffee shops, and Starbucks patrons spent less time in the stores.
“There should be subsidies for those who are doing the government’s job,” said Gurun, of the University of Texas at Dallas. “If you delegate the responsibility to someone else, you incentivize them.”
Ald. David Moore, 17th, once introduced an ordinance that would have required Chicago businesses to allow the public to use their restroom facilities, though that 2017 effort was dropped amid pushback from owners. In a recent interview, Moore said offering incentives could be “cost effective, definitely, for the city,” depending on the specifics. He also said adding more restrooms or portable toilets is worth considering, as well as requiring businesses to post signage acknowledging the 2005 restroom law.
Tom Gordon, the self-described “mayor” of the tent encampments near the viaducts at Lawrence and Wilson avenues in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the city to acknowledge a sanitation problem officials hadn’t wanted to deal with in the past.
Tom Gordon relaxes in a tent pitched underneath the DuSable Lake Shore Drive viaduct on Lawrence Avenue in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood in July. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)
In spring 2020, when most businesses and public facilities were closed, the city placed portable toilets and hand-washing stations at several encampments. Before the pandemic began, “people went to restaurants, they went to different places to use the bathroom,” Gordon said. “But when you shut the city down, where do you got to go?”
It’s not clear how long the toilets will stay. Funding for the 11 portable toilets at eight encampments costs about $84,000 annually, and funding has been secured through December, a city spokesperson said.
Maps and information about public restrooms could really help unhoused people in Chicago, said Noam Greene, lead street medicine outreach worker at the Night Ministry. Even for the average commuter, he said, it can be difficult to know where to go.
“Honestly, I feel like people think that the concerns of their unhoused neighbors are somehow completely different than their own, but it’s just a fact like everyone needs to use a toilet every day, probably more than once a day,” Greene said. “This is a shared concern and I think it’s important that people pay attention to this because it can really impact people’s health.”
Emily Hoerner is an investigative reporter who works with data. She previously covered judges, prisons, policing and criminal justice at Injustice Watch. She has reported on topics including the state parole system, the evolving treatment of juveniles in adult court, and law enforcement activity on social media.