For less than New Mexico currently allocates to its State Massage Therapy Board, it could soon provide a fully functioning mobile hygiene bus for homeless residents in the Albuquerque area.
State Rep. Stephanie Maez (D), who represents a section of Albuquerque, recently introduced a bill that would put $200,000 toward constructing and deploying a bus equipped with showers and restrooms. HB 585 would fund a pilot project for one year, tracking data on usage, staffing, and expenses to run the bus.
At last count, there were 1,170 homeless individuals living in Albuquerque. More than 10 percent of them were children, and an even larger percentage were veterans.
KRQE interviewed a homeless man living in the city, Jack Russell Delorme, about the proposal. “It is a bright idea because it’s needed,” he said. “The role here is to survive.”
Restrooms can be a difficult challenge for officials trying to balance the desire to prevent public urination and defecation with the fact that bodily functions don’t magically cease to exist for homeless people. Many cities lack a sufficient number of public restrooms to serve their homeless populations, and most have even fewer (if any) public showers.
With no bathroom of their own and few public options, the result is entirely expected: people have no choice but to go in public. But rather than providing more facilities for the homeless, most governments are instead seeking to throw people in jail for needing to use the bathroom.
A 2011 report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found that respondents in 73 percent of cities, such as Honolulu, reported arrests, citations, or both for public urination or defecation. This level was higher than any other offense related to homelessness. In addition, four out of five respondents said that their city lacked a sufficient number of public restrooms. The report recommended more public toilets, saying, “Providing a 24/7 public bathroom reduces the need for homeless people to resort to public urination or defecation and helps prevent the criminalization of this basic human need.”
Retrofitting buses with showers and restrooms is an idea that is gaining popularity in a number of cities. In San Francisco, a local woman launched a charity last year, LavaMae, to transform old city buses into mobile hygiene units. The idea soon spread south to Palo Alto, where a private charity is currently raising money to build a mobile trailer with showers, restrooms, and a washer/dryer.
New Mexico may soon become the first to devote state money to the idea. The bill is quickly gaining support in the Republican-held State House, unanimously passing the Regulatory and Public Affairs Committee last week.