by Erica C Barnett
(This article was originally published on The C is for Crank and is reprinted under an agreement)
The Seattle Public Library, which closed down all of its 26 branches on March 13 to protect patrons and employees during the COVID-19 epidemic, is planning to partially reopen a handful of branches to provide access to restrooms for people experiencing homelessness. Discussions are still ongoing about safety protocols, staffing levels, and hours, but an announcement could come as soon as this week.
The five branches where the city is considering restroom-only openings are the central library downtown and neighborhood branches in Ballard, Capitol Hill, the University District, the International District, and Beacon Hill. People using the restrooms would be required to line up outside, and patrons would not have access to other parts of the libraries.
Seattle City Council members Andrew Lewis, who chairs the council’s homelessness committee, and Dan Strauss, whose district includes the Ballard library branch, first publicly suggested opening the library restrooms in early April, after deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller revealed that the city is paying $35,000 per month for each hygiene center, including the three Honey Buckets that are currently posted just across the street from the Ballard branch.
“I don’t set the prices, so I can’t speak for other people,” Sixkiller said at a meeting of the council’s homelessness committee on April 8.
Even if each library branch pays several staff members to keep the restroom area open and prevent patrons from wandering into the stacks, opening the libraries will still almost certainly cost less than what the city is paying for portable toilets. This is rough math, but three staffers who cost the city $50 an hour would cost around $25,000 a month, or $10,000 less than a single hygiene center.
Besides the cost, which Sixkiller attributed to “simple supply and demand” at a time when many cities are looking for hygiene solutions, a recurring issue with portable toilets is that their handwashing facilities frequently run out of water and require constant maintenance. Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, argue that people need access to a toilet within a half mile of where they live, and has suggested partially reopening both libraries and community centers for this purpose.
After The C is for Crank reported that up to a third of the restrooms the city said were open were actually locked, the city opened up most parks restrooms and added new 24/7 “hygiene centers” (portable toilets with handwashing stations) at 12 locations . However, restroom closures continue to occur at unpredictable intervals; over the weekend, for example, restrooms at Volunteer Park were locked, and one of the restrooms at Leschi Park lacked both soap and any kind of toilet paper or paper towels.
It’s unclear precisely when the city plans to open the library restrooms, and what hurdles remain. Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan, said, “I can’t confirm any details or specifics at this time as we are continuing conversations with labor, management and city employees and developing potential operational plans including locations, staffing, and hours.”
Featured image by Alex Garland