Showers in Subway Stations? LA Metro Seeks to Boost Hygiene for City's Homeless

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A major bus hub that also serves as the northern terminus of Metro Rail's Red Line, North Hollywood station is one potential location for mobile showers that cater to the homeless. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In the nearly 20 years that I've been using major metro systems, I can confidently say that I've never once stepped into a public restroom in any of them. Sometimes, I'm not entirely sure if they even exist.

In New York City, home to the wildly dysfunctional subway that I ride with the greatest frequency, I hear whispers of these elusive bathrooms. They're usually impossible to find — and very rarely functional or open — but these subterranean lavatories are indeed out there. Occasionally, I'll pass by a mysterious padlocked door that I suspect is — or was — a bathroom. But since said door appears to be a portal to a horror film, I'm more than happy to hold it in and hurry on my way.

Per a 2013 CityLab dispatch on the dearth of public potties in American subway stations, 77 stations across New York City have working restrooms (news to me) although most are hidden, closed "for construction" or in gruesome condition. In the nation's capital, the Washington Metro is nearly devoid of public restrooms altogether. The Chicago "L" used to have them but they've been since closed or are only accessible to Chicago Transit Authority workers. San Francisco's BART has working public restrooms at 32 of the system's 44 stations, although they're often closed for maintenance. Loos in BART's underground stations have been closed for security purposes since the Sept. 11 attacks, although some are set to finally reopen.

The takeaway? Subway stations aren't an ideal place to be when nature calls.

Pershing Square Station, Los Angeles Metro Rail
Composed of two subway lines and four light rail lines serving 93 stations, Los Angeles Metro Rail is relatively new as far as rapid transit systems go. It started service in 1990. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

And then there's Los Angeles.

No, Los Angeles County's Metro Rail network is very much not a wonderland of easily accessible, sparkling clean public restrooms. As Metro Director and Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis recently relayed to Curbed LA, there's only one public restroom in the entire 93-station system. (The El Monte station on the Silver Line, in case you were wondering).

Solis, a former California congresswoman and Obama-era United States Secretary of Labor, is on a mission to change that by unveiling mobile restrooms, complete with shower facilities, at certain Metro stations.

Going from almost no restrooms to restrooms outfitted with showers may seem like a bold leap. It's safe to assume that, under most circumstances, the average Metro Rail customer would take a hard pass if given the opportunity to shower at a subway station. But Solis isn't targeting the average subway commuter.

Man waiting for train, Metro Rail Los Angeles
Ridership is down across LA's mass transit network. Metro believes this is partially due to an influx of homeless Angelenos taking up residence in subways and buses. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

The mobile hygiene hubs would specifically cater to the city's exploding homeless population, a population that's increasingly seeking relief from the elements in and around Metro rail stations.

"Lack of hygiene facilities around our transit stations impacts our health and quality of life, and the depth of this problem is apparent and impacting our transit riders and station-adjacent communities," explains Solis in a news release. "For children, a shower is often the difference between going to school or not. Above all, this can help people regain their self-confidence and dignity — even if they are experiencing homelessness."

A warm shower can make a world of difference

With Solis serving as lead author, a motion to study the feasibility of installing mobile shower and bathroom facilities around select pilot stations was recently approved unanimously by the Metro board of directors.

A fleshed-out plan of attack must be presented to the board within a 120-day timeframe and include a "full analysis identifying and prioritizing high-need metro stations." (The North Hollywood station on the Red Line and the Westlake/MacArthur Park station on the Red and Purple Lines are two stations already mentioned in Solis' motion.) The motion also calls for other crucial county entities — the Department of Public Works, the Department of Public Health and the Los Angeles County Office of Homeless Initiatives among them — to be involved in the process.

homeless man sleeps on sidewalk in downtown LA
The number of people living on the streets has grown exponentially in both Los Angeles County and in LA city proper over the last two years. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

"This motion represents another important effort among several dozen strategies that the County has launched as part of its action plan to reduce homelessness," says County Supervisor and motion co-author Sheila Kuehl. "Providing showers not only helps people with their basic hygiene, it also helps to restore dignity and makes it easier to connect people to the services needed to put them on a path from homelessness to housing."

In fact, Los Angeles already has a mobile public shower pilot initiative in place: the County Mobile Showers Program, which was launched by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year. As Solis' office notes, access to a hot shower and other means of basic hygiene via the fledgling program "can help individuals to retain and obtain employment, increase self-esteem and well-being, and may facilitate uptake of other services." What's more, Lava Mae, the wonderful San Francisco-based nonprofit that transforms beat-up old buses into life-altering traveling hygiene stations, has brought its vision of "radical hospitality" to Los Angeles as well.

"It's an amazing program," board member and Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin says of the county's existing mobile shower scheme. "For those of us who are housed it is hard for us to imagine, but it is fundamentally transformative for someone who has been living on the streets to be able to take a shower."

a homeless woman in los angeles
'Homelessness is a reality for nearly 58,000 people in the County. Providing access to adequate sanitation is a basic human right," says Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

'We don't have a moment to waste ...'

A motion to explore the possibility of installing mobile restrooms and showers at subway stations isn't the only way Metro is looking to alleviate the homelessness epidemic in Los Angeles County.

As Laura J. Nelson reports for the Los Angeles Times, the agency is experiencing a system-wide decline in ridership with nearly three out of 10 riders noting that they've stopped using Metro because of concerns over cleanliness and safety as more and more homeless people spill off of the streets and into subways and buses. In turn, the agency plans to ramp up its homeless outreach program along rail lines and in the stations where homelessness is most prevalent. As one of the county's top landowners, Metro is also considering using idle parcels to host temporary facilities where homeless residents can safely store their possessions, take showers and on. For those living in their cars, some underused Metro parking lots would potentially allow secure overnight parking.

"We don't have a moment to waste," Los Angeles County Supervisors and Metro director Ridley-Thomas explains. "We have to run faster to keep up with this crisis."

Homelessness in LA County jumped a staggering 23 percent from 2016 to 2017 per results from the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. Within Los Angeles city limits, the figure rose 20 percent. In total, there are believed to be roughly 57,794 homeless individuals living within the sprawling county and 34,189 homeless individuals living with LA city proper.

In his 2018-2019 fiscal budget, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti allocated $430 million to help combat homelessness — more than double the amount of the previous year — with $20 million being earmarked for the funding of new shelters across all city districts.