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Public toilet urged for Cambridge Common

A working group will explore where a permanent public restroom could be built in the area of the Cambridge Common.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

It's a problem that just about everyone who has walked through Cambridge shares: finding a public bathroom around Harvard Square.

Now, a loose coalition of churches, homelessness organizations, and businesses have launched a campaign called Advocates for a Common Toilet, in an effort to get a public restroom for the Cambridge Common.

"Where Would Jesus Go?" says one slogan. "I Heart Toilets," says another.

"This is just one obvious thing that has been missing in our city," said Valerie Shulman, a member of Christ Church Cambridge. "It's time to take action."

The city and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation are preparing to put out to bid an estimated $3.9 million renovation of the Common this fall, but the design had already been approved by the state before advocates began calling for a bathroom in the park.


For now, Deputy City Manager Lisa Peterson said the city has placed a portable bathroom stall in the park.

The city has also formed a working group to explore where a permanent public restroom could be built in the area, as well as what kind of design it should have.

"There is certainly a need that we absolutely understand," Peterson said.

For decades, Christ Church Cambridge had an open-door policy allowing the homeless and tourists in Harvard Square to walk in and use its bathroom with no questions asked.

For decades, Christ Church Cambridge had an open-door policy allowing the homeless and tourists to walk in and use their bathroom, but problems forced the church to close it last summer.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

But with a shortage of public bathrooms in the square and the neighboring common, the church began having problems, such as drug dealing and overdoses, in its heavily used bathroom and had to call police on multiple occasions, said the Rev. Jonathan Eden, associate rector.

After an emotional debate at the church about sealing off the bathroom to the homeless, the church decided to follow the recommendation of police to close it last summer, said Shulman.


Soon, businesses began complaining about people urinating and defecating in doorways and alleyways in the square, said Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association.

"Almost immediately I started receiving phone calls from businesses saying 'what the heck happened; our alley or our little walkway has become a public toilet," said Jillson.

The lack of public restrooms isn't unique to Harvard Square. Tourists often have to go into local businesses along the Freedom Trail in Boston's North End where there are no free public facilities.

There, too, a church, the Old North Church, has stepped in, making two bathrooms available to the guests.

In Cambridge, Peterson said the city is looking at six or seven spots around the common where a public bathroom could go, and City Manager Richard Rossi has committed to having a recommendation included in the city budget for the next fiscal year.

Mary Shannon Thomas, a member of the city's working group looking into the public restroom, said the availability of public restrooms is often overlooked when discussing the needs of the homeless.

It's a basic need, even if it's not something tourists always write posts about in their Yelp.com reviews of Harvard Square, she said.

"It's a public health issue and it's a human decency issue," Shannon Thomas said.

Ayala Livny, the program director for Youth on Fire, a nonprofit organization in Harvard Square that works with homeless people between the ages of 14 and 24, said a coalition of local homelessness groups had identified the lack of a public restroom as a major issue.


While a portable bathroom stall might not be a solution for addressing all the public restroom needs of Harvard Square, Livny said the city's placement of the temporary bathroom in the common has been helpful to some of the homeless youth she works with.

"We've heard these really amazing things," Livny said. "Now that there's a public toilet available after 8 p.m., people will eat dinner, which they wouldn't eat before because they weren't sure what was going to happen and they didn't want to risk a public indecency charge."

Peterson said that while some homelessness organizations have helped keep an eye on the portable stall in the park, the city is still studying how to provide security and maintenance for a permanent restroom.

Drug use in restrooms, as well as other unintended uses, are a concern for the city, just as they are for private institutions or churches that open their restroom doors to the public, Peterson said.

Cambridge is now looking at a public restroom called the "Portland Loo" used in Portland, Ore., that has a sink on the outside and a wide handicapped-accessible stall that has a small space at the bottom where someone from the outside can see if someone is laying down on the floor.

If Cambridge chooses similar designs for a restroom near the common and a trial period is successful, Peterson said the city could eventually place the toilets in other locations.


Advocates say they have been encouraged by the city's response, but Shulman said the grass-roots campaign for public toilets will continue.

"It's a matter of taking this theoretical approval and agreement that it's a good idea and taking actual steps and getting it approved in our budget," she said.

Brock Parker can be reached at brock.globe@gmail.com.