Snow falls on a fenced-off Pickering Square in downtown Bangor on Dec. 5. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

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Sam Bullard is the co-program director of the Peace & Justice Center of Eastern Maine, a volunteer for the Greater Bangor Housing Coalition, and a member of Mabel Wadsworth Center’s Advocacy Committee. She is also a queer freelance artist centered in Bangor.

Bangor is facing a human rights issue, and most people don’t even know about it. The root of this issue lies with something most people take for granted, a service that most cities provide: bathroom access. As it stands now, downtown Bangor isn’t providing a public restroom, temporary or permanent. This is an issue of health, hospitality and dignity that we should be addressing, and we can start by supporting the efforts of organizations like the Greater Bangor Housing Coalition.

So why should you care about this issue? Let us examine a few of the reasons for providing public restrooms.

The first concern with bathroom access is public health. It is common knowledge human waste is not a sanitary substance, hence why we have spent hundreds of years crafting efficient waste disposal systems. The pandemic has especially reinforced our knowledge about improper hygiene exacerbating sickness within the community. When the public option for bathrooms is removed, these issues of public health rise again. It is therefore the city’s duty for the safety of our community to provide this resource in the name of public health.

Another facet to consider with restroom access is hospitality. With COVID restrictions loosening and summer tourism beginning, addressing this need becomes imperative. The majority of cities in the U.S. provide public restrooms, so it is often confusing and discouraging to discover Bangor does not provide them. Instead, the city puts this burden on the private downtown businesses to meet this need, which is then put behind a paywall. Bathroom access should not be limited to whether a person can make a purchase. This paywall promotes class divides, creating animosity from businesses towards lower income people and highlighting the city’s indifference towards amending it.

Equity and human dignity are other themes with this issue hitting close to home for me. Everyday I live with two incurable chronic illnesses: interstitial cystitis and irritable bowel syndrome. My IBS is a common but debilitating condition of the digestive tract, while my interstitial cystitis is a more rare bladder condition causing severe pain, urgency and frequency.

Conditions like these make people like myself dependent on bathroom access. Lack of access can be humiliating, dehumanizing and challenging for people with disabilities and those who are already stigmatized for being lower class. Knowing I can depend on public restrooms turns what could be an anxiety-inducing journey into a simple trip where I do not have to feel held back by my illnesses.

For the past seven months, the Greater Bangor Housing Coalition has been collaborating with the local community to address needs not currently being met in our city. Next to housing and food access, public restrooms were a top priority for housed and unhoused members alike. From these discussions emerged a proposal for four temporary bathrooms in downtown as well as a group of daily cleaners to monitor them. This plan would act as a placeholder until the city is able to build a more permanent facility for the public. The coalition and the Peace & Justice Center of Eastern Maine are already negotiating with the city of Bangor on this proposal, but the work is far from over.

The need now is community support. We need a diversity of voices from people in the Bangor area who want public restrooms. We need to show our representatives it is not just organizations like GBHC and people who are unhoused who care about issues of accessibility, health and dignity.

Join us on Monday, June 14 at 7:30 p.m. for the Bangor City Council’s Zoom meeting to express your support for restroom access in Bangor. We will be speaking in support of the housing coalition’s temporary solution and advocating for the city to commit to a more permanent and equitable solution. We also have a virtual letter of support individuals and businesses can sign. Let’s make our city a welcoming place for all.