Finley: Homeless need place to go when nature calls

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

The homeless have at least one thing in common with the titans and up-and-comers who pass them on the streets of Detroit every day — when nature calls, they have to answer.

But if you don’t have a home, it’s pretty likely you also don’t have a bathroom. So like anyone else would, the homeless have to find a place to go when they have to go. And that’s often not in the most convenient places for the rest of us.

Building alcoves throughout downtown smell like urinals. Alleys are worse, and contain more visible evidence that they are being used as toilets.

I talked with a downtown businesswoman last week who opened the front door of her building and interrupted a man who was relieving himself on her steps.

You can’t blame the homeless. They have the same physical needs as everyone else. But there has to be a way to allow them to keep their dignity while keeping downtown more sanitary.

Why not strategically locate portable toilets throughout the central business district? They don’t have to be the garish, blue plastic models that are trucked in for events.

Instead, we could sponsor a design contest to come up with toilets that blend into their environment, and, as much as possible, are tucked discretely out of sight.

“The challenges faced by the homeless population have to be addressed on a number of levels,” says Eric Larson, chief executive of the Downtown Detroit Partnership. “One of them is hygiene.”

Larson notes that before Ford Auditorium was closed, the city used it at times as a shelter, and a place where the homeless could have access to showers and toilets.

Now, for those homeless who are not in shelters, or are there only at night, their options are limited. They aren’t often welcomed into building lobbies or bars and restaurants to use private restrooms.

Larson is open to the idea of specially designed portable toilets that serve as a temporary solution until a more permanent answer to homelessness is found. He suggests a pilot program to see if the restrooms actually address the issue. In other big cities, public toilets are more prevalent, for use by everyone.

Accommodating the physical needs of the homeless is just one part of the battle.

Ultimately, Larson says, as a community we have to find ways to give them economic opportunity and treatment for whatever physical or mental conditions contributed to their situations.

“We have to give them back their identity,” he says.

In the meantime, giving them a little privacy to handle their bodily functions seems the right thing to do. And it could get us thinking about other unique ways we can address homelessness. Last week in Grand Rapids, I heard Veronika Scott of The Empowerment Plan tell the West Michigan Policy Forum about her Detroit company, which provides the homeless with coats that convert to sleeping bags.

But she’s not just giving them warmth; she’s giving some of them jobs making the coats. She urged her audience to stop looking past those who live on the streets and start seeing them as people of value and potential.

An essential piece of that perspective would be to consider the indignity the homeless endure when they must slip into a public doorway or alley to do what should be their private business.