Last week, the New York Post sent seven reporters out on one assignment to follow around a single homeless man and wait for him to urinate.
Last Saturday, he appeared on the front page. “20 Years of Cleaning Up NYC Pissed Away,” the cover read.
It featured a homeless man hunched over in a makeshift shawl. A photographer had taken a picture of the 49-year-old, who is schizophrenic, pissing on Broadway.
The next day, the Post wrote about him again. They called him a “peeing menace.”
Finally, on Monday, the paper called him a “disgusting derelict” and a “foul-smelling vagrant” in the first two paragraphs of an article. Those words are attributed to the seven bylined reporters who wrote it.
Those reporters then found two people who baselessly imply that the homeless man would eventually kill someone, including a state senator who compared him to an unrelated man who attacked a 16-year-old girl decades ago.
In total, 16 New York Post reporters tailed this mentally ill man over the course of the week.
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton condemned the Post for its bullying of a homeless person in its paper.
“He’s an extremely emotionally disturbed individual—schizophrenic—and so all the attention is actually exacerbating his condition,” Bratton said, according to the New York Daily News. “Pursuing him for 30 or 40 blocks throughout the city is certainly doing nothing to calm him down. Rather, it’s agitating him.”
But then, inexplicably, The New York Times backed up the Post in a feature-length report on Thursday lamenting public urination in the city, but providing no real answers on how to make sure it happens less.
“A particularly egregious example appeared on the cover of The New York Post on Saturday: a man relieving himself in broad daylight in the middle of Broadway traffic,” said the report.
The Times devoted three reporters and over 1,500 words to this story, but never talked to someone who could fix it. They did, however, offer a solution for wealthy people who had already been charged with public urination and wanted to spend about $1,000 to get their ticket changed to “littering.”
There was no answer for the people in need—whether that’s a homeless person, a disabled person in a bind, or anyone else who needs to use a bathroom but are subject to the whim of a local business.
There is a solution, by the way. There are plenty. And it doesn’t start with shaming homeless people on the front page of a tabloid, or backing up that practice in a thinkpiece in the paper of record.
“This kind of media is just perpetuating a problem,” Jeff Holiman told The Daily Beast. “Blaming it on those who don’t have the means to be a part of the solution at this time is not helping anything.”
Holiman works with PHLUSH, or Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human, a nonprofit in Portland, Oregon, that helps expand public access to toilets.
It’s been a wild success in Portland. Years ago, the city’s Old Town Chinatown neighborhood was beginning to grow into a hub for business and shopping. They had a problem, though. The city streets were sometimes littered with shit and urine because there was simply no other option for the homeless who lived nearby.
PHLUSH worked to fix it quickly, the old-fashioned way. For one, they lobbied downtown pantries to open restrooms that were already in existence to make them accessible around the clock.
Not only did it work, Holiman says, it spawned jobs and new projects. One of those projects, a pop-up restroom called the Portland Loo with the tagline “a universal solution to a universal problem,” was stolen so brazenly by a private company the city sued over copyright infringement.
“It was a grassroots effort of people who saw this need. There were so many who were experiencing the lack of access for public facilities—not just for the houseless and disenfranchised, but for people living there, or working in the business district. Because of that, the political system wanted to be responsive to the concerns of their constituents,” says Holiman. “It spawned from the bottom up.”
Shawn Shafner says it can work in New York City, too. There’s plenty of incentive, anyway.
“Why do we need more public toilets? Tourists,” he says. “If you’re out and it looks like you don’t have a place to go, you might just go home. It keeps people out there. People can continue to go shopping and not have to worry about a place to pee.”
Shafner runs an organization called The Poop Project, which advocates for clean toilet facilities to the 40 percent of the world without access to a proper one. But he works in New York City, too, because it needs help.
He likes the Bryant Park model. They have public restrooms sponsored by businesses, which can pay for staff to keep them clean and water the flowers around it that make it a useful—maybe even pretty—space.
So why have places like this in New York City disappeared?
“Targeting public urination is a way of criminalizing homelessness. It has a lot less to do with the act itself than the people it affects,” Shafner says.
It also explains why people are quick to act repulsed by it, or put it on the cover of the newspaper, or write long stories about how it’s a pall on the city—but not explore why they feel that way or find out how to fix it.
“The way we deal with pee and bodily fluids is how we differentiate who’s an animal and who’s a citizen. If we criminalize it, we are animalizing them,” he says.
And that repulsion—instead of action—is all about projection.
“It’s not really a health problem—especially with urine. The real thing is the aesthetic. Shit upsets the system,” says Shafner. “It takes away that beautiful façade of the world we want to see. If someone messes with it, the narrative becomes, ‘The city has turned upside down!’ Pee is the same way. It’s an immediate trigger. You feel it has threatened your way of life.”
We equate being able to control our bodily functions with the idea of being human, Shafner says. But that simply is not always the case—especially not for those with health conditions that require more facilities than New York City currently has.
“People who get dogs and don’t take them out to pee—we call them abusers. Those dogs get taken away. But for people with Crohn’s (Disease) or colitis or IBS, or those who develop incontinence with old age, or even pregnant women who need that space—we don’t afford them those same privileges a lot of the time. We don’t give them what they need,” he says.
“And, I mean, who among us hasn’t been there?”
At one point, New York City did provide these facilities—even public bathing facilities were scattered throughout Manhattan, including one just above Times Square on 51st Street—but it’s understandable why they went away.
“You don’t see many people walking into a community board meeting saying, ‘We really need more money for public toilets.’ They say, ‘We need more money for education,’ and that’s understandable,” he says. “Toilets are a very hard sell.”
That’s why Shafner and Holiman both say the right thing to do is follow PHLUSH’s lead: Lobby your neighborhood associations, your community boards or your city councils.
It is readily fixable with a few conversations. It has been academically proven to be good for the economy, even.
But that shouldn’t matter. If people are peeing in the streets because there’s no place else for them to pee, then don’t shame them for doing the human thing they have to do. Give them a place to do it. Let them retain their humanity.
“Bodily functions like this are power. Pee is power. Shit is power,” says Shafner.
And projecting an insecurity about that power on the front page of a newspaper is only going to make it worse—both for the city and for those who need help.
“[This coverage] is missing the larger point of the human dignity side,” says Holiman. “As a society, if there is a basic human function that not everyone has a means to perform with dignity, then it seems, in my mind, necessary to recognize that need.”