By Richard McCarty
In recent years, liberals have been advocating for a way to “help” the homeless deal with the lack of sufficient public toilets. And just what is this brilliant idea? Is it more public restrooms, or more homeless shelters? No, their radical idea is to decriminalize public urination and defecation. Think about that. As the developing world embraces modern hygiene practices and races to stamp out the bad habit of open defecation, urban liberals in the U.S. are pushing to return our cities to the Middle Ages.
In 2015, San Francisco judges stopped issuing bench warrants for the arrest of those who failed to appear in court for quality-of-life crimes, including urinating on the sidewalk. The following year, those judges discarded 66,000 outstanding bench warrants. The judges wanted police officers to suggest treatment programs to offenders rather than write citations for quality-of-life crimes.
In 2016, New York City passed legislation sharply downgrading the penalty for public urination and other antisocial behaviors. According to the champion of this legislation, the purpose was to keep people from getting criminal records. Last year, the Denver City Council unanimously voted to decriminalize public urination and defecation. Their reason: to protect illegal immigrants from deportation.
While no decent person wants to see impoverished or mentally ill people being unnecessarily harassed by the government, let’s not forget that ordinances criminalizing disgusting behavior can have positive effects. For example, jail time — or the threat of it — could cause a runaway to reconnect with estranged relatives; incarceration could help an addict or alcoholic to give up drugs or alcohol; and the threat of an extended jail sentence could push some homeless people to move to a shelter where they might find resources to break out of homelessness.
Public defecation is a severe threat to public health. Recently, California has experienced an outbreak of Hepatitis A, which is spread by fecal contamination. That outbreak has sickened hundreds and killed more than 20. Many of those affected have been homeless or drug users. Public urination may even be a safety hazard: several years ago, a San Francisco light pole fell over on a car after being corroded by urine. Fortunately, the driver of the car was not hit.
Decriminalizing public urination and defecation is a threat to the environment. If human waste remained where it’s deposited, it would be bad enough; but it doesn’t. Unless the waste is cleaned up, it may wind up being dumped into rivers or other bodies of water. This pollution can lead to algae blooms and harm fish, aquatic plants, and other sea life.
Decriminalization of public urination and defecation is also a threat to jobs, the economy, and property values. With brick and mortar stores under siege by online retailers, and with mom and pop businesses battling for survival against much larger competitors, a filthy, smelly street just might force a business to close or move to a cleaner suburb. And with the closing of urban stores, life grows more difficult for those living in poverty nearby. Also, raw sewage can force the closure of beaches and fishing areas endangering yet more jobs. Furthermore, dirty streets and sidewalks can depress real estate values by discouraging potential buyers, thereby trapping owners in upside-down mortgages.
Of course, maybe there wouldn’t be as many homeless people in need of toilets if liberal politicians didn’t fight to keep students in failing schools, didn’t pursue policies that discourage the construction of housing, didn’t create laws and regulations that hinder job creation — and did not pursue sanctuary city policies to attract illegal immigrants.
Anyone who genuinely cares about the less fortunate should seriously reconsider their support for decriminalizing public urination and defecation due to its detrimental impact on public health, the environment, jobs, and property values. Finally, the EPA should investigate to see whether or not these localities that are doing little to discourage such unsanitary behavior comply with the Clean Water Act.
Richard McCarty is the Director of Research at Americans for Limited Government Foundation.
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