Fight Over Public Toilets and the Homeless Reignites in Miami

The permanent restroom installed under the Metrorail station at Flagler Street and NW First Avenue is staffed by a bathroom attendant who was once homeless.
The permanent restroom installed under the Metrorail station at Flagler Street and NW First Avenue is staffed by a bathroom attendant who was once homeless. Photo by Miami Downtown Development Authority
For years, human waste has been a problem in downtown Miami. With nowhere to relieve themselves, homeless people have resorted to urinating and defecating in public corridors. It's a disagreeable situation for nearly everyone who frequents the area, including business owners, downtown workers, visitors, and, of course, the homeless population.

City leaders have been discussing the merits of public toilets for at least six years. In 2015, the debate ramped up when the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), which markets the area to tourists and investors, unveiled a so-called poop map showing where human excrement had been found. That same year, over the objections of Miami-Dade Homeless Trust chairman Ron Book, who said his only responsibility was to find housing for the homeless, the DDA and the City of Miami funded a pilot program and installed two public toilets.

Five years later, DDA chairman and Miami Commissioner Ken Russell says it's now well past time to build more public restrooms. Earlier this month, Russell held a meeting with city leaders to begin identifying funding and sites for additional toilets.

"There is not enough shelter and not enough services and not enough affordable housing to have people to move out of the shelters," Russell tells New Times. "We don't have the perfect system yet, so if that's the case, you have to deal with what's happening on the streets."

Russell, who became chairman of the DDA shortly after the agency released the poop map, says he believes that idea was the wrong approach to the problem. "I realize it's an issue, but you're taking someone in their moment of least dignity and creating some joke about it," he says.

Since then, the commissioner says, he has tried to shift the rhetoric regarding the public toilets, noting they can benefit anyone visiting downtown. The permanent restroom installed under the Metrorail station at Flagler Street and NW First Avenue is staffed by a bathroom attendant who was once homeless and is now paid $15 an hour to keep the facility clean and safe for use. An average of 130 people now use the toilet every day.

"This wasn't a homeless toilet; this was a public toilet," Russell says.

Owing to poor planning, Russell notes, the permanent restroom cost about $312,000 — a price that includes the structure, the platform, and the land beneath it. But Russell hopes that by partnering with the county to identify free sites, future toilets could be installed for $100,000 to $200,000.

That price might still seem high, but Russell says the city spends "a significant amount" of money pressure-washing the streets daily to keep excrement from building up. "There's potential savings here through this investment in terms of cleaning," he says.

Nevertheless, Book continues to balk at the notion of the Homeless Trust putting any funding toward public toilets.

"We're in the business of ending homelessness," he says. "Bathrooms and showers do nothing but sustain homelessness. It keeps folks out on the streets. It does nothing to end it."

Although the Homeless Trust and other groups have helped to reduce the city's population of unsheltered homeless people drastically over the past 25 years, the number of "street homeless," as Book calls them, has hovered around 1,000 in Miami since 2015.

To Russell, that reality calls for a compassionate response.

"I fully support the housing-first model if you have the housing, but we still have that 1,000 on the street," he says. "We need to address that."

Book holds fundamentally different beliefs. He says he's committed to housing as many homeless people as possible but won't do anything to help them continue to live on the streets.

"[Three-quarters] of those left on the street are chronic, and we are certain that chronic individuals are shelter-resistant and they want housing," he says.

For the past several months, Book adds, he has been working on a plan to secure mass housing for single homeless men and for homeless sex offenders — two populations that have proven difficult to place in permanent housing.

"I have a plan for some immediate housing, and I am confident that that solution is beginning to get closer," he tells New Times.

In the meantime, Russell says, the DDA is looking for other funding sources and partnerships in hopes of erecting at least three other toilets downtown.

"Homeless people are people first and homeless second," the commissioner says. "Getting them back on that first rung of the ladder is so key, and helping them with compassion is also key."
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Jessica Lipscomb is the former news editor of Miami New Times.