MANCHESTER, NH – Glenn Ouellette led a small group of demonstrators from the visitor’s center at Veterans Park Tuesday night to the Mayor and Aldermen in City Hall to speak out about the status of the city’s downtown bathrooms.
For Oullette, the fight over the city’s bathrooms began in 2014 when they were closed per that year’s budget. Since then, a notice has been painted onto the doors of the Elm Street visitor center, advising the public that the restrooms would only be open during special events.
But Ouellette says that is not enough. “The taxpayers are paying for this building, so if we’re paying to keep it open why are they closed?”
The city has offered to hire a bathroom monitor as a condition to reopening the facilities. They say they job would require a salary of more than $100K per year, including benefits.
But Ouellette says those numbers are fudged. He points to the city-employed attendant working at Livingston park in the North End who, in addition to bathroom duties, picks up trash helps to maintain the park’s facilities as a whole. That employee is paid just $52,000 a year.
Currently, the city says they pay an employee to clean the bathrooms three times a week.
“Why are we cleaning them three times a week if they’re closed?” asks Ouellette.
Ouellette walked me around to the entrance of the facility where the evidence of three-times-weekly cleaning was not exactly clear. “It stinks,” he said, more in affirmation than information of what we both knew clearly to be true.
The city has plans to renovate the bathrooms. Currently, the Alderman have said that they will provide the restroom with new toilets at $747 a piece and seats for $812.
“What are those toilet seats made of, gold?” asked Ouellette.
“It’s their way of saying ‘we’re not opening these bathrooms because we can’t afford them and we’re going to make sure we can’t afford it because we’re going to fudge the numbers,’” said Ouellette.
Tuesday’s protest was attended by just six people initially, but was joined by a few more after reaching the chambers at City Hall. Ouellette even picked up some supporters along the way.
One resident of the city who joined the protest at the park told Aldermen that, as a homeless woman herself, downtown bathrooms open to the public were a necessity for the city’s homeless population.
“My homeless family needs a place where we can do human functions,” she said in front of the Aldermen, some visibly surprised by her candor. “Please open the public restrooms,” she pleaded, ” I will keep them clean…at no charge.”
Terri and Mark Ploss were also in attendance at the initial protest. For them, the bathroom issue is central to an endemic issue of homelessness within in the city.
“It’s an important issue because we spend a lot of our time working with the homeless in the city … it’s a disgrace that they have no place to go to the bathroom at all,” said Mark.
“If you have a bathroom and you have a home you can just go whenever you want, but imagine being outside in the cold and not having a place to go,” said Terri.
For Oullette, the homelessness issue is number two to the bigger goal of open public bathrooms downtown.
“Three percent of people who use that bathroom are homeless, the majority of them are poor people who go to work everyday … who use the bus,” he said.
The visitor’s center is located next to one of the city’s main public transportation stops.
Ouellette also said that the center is intended for people passing through town, or just arriving to the Queen City. “This building here is called the ‘welcome center.’ They can come get a picture but they can’t use the bathroom and they call that welcoming?”
Around 6:30 p.m., the small group of demonstrators made their way from the welcome center to city hall to voice their grievances to the mayor and aldermen.
It was a busy meeting. The aldermanic chambers were flush with members of the community, some protesting the potty situation, others with separate matters to bring before the board. Some Aldermen listened intently to the protesters, others visibly strained to push through.
Ouellette was first to speak.
“Why is it that at the Dorrs Pond bathroom it cost $50,000 for an attendant, can you answer the public why it would cost $105,000 … for a lot less hours at Veterans Park? Those are fudged numbers,” he said before the Aldermen at the opening of his three-minute plea during public comment.
Ouellette advised the Aldermen that a letter from the CDC will be arriving in two weeks informing them of what has happened to other cities in the country that have closed public bathrooms in heavy traffic areas. “It’s not healthy,” forewarned Ouellette.
Despite his vocal concern for the closed bathroom’s impact on the city’s homeless, Ouellette went on to say that this was not chiefly a homelessness issue.
“I’m sick and tired of being told that it’s the homeless that are keeping us from doing this when the taxpayers are paying for these bathrooms,” he said, “There are people who, every single day, are taking a bus and sometimes they need a bathroom.”
“We only have one race in this universe – it’s called the human race – and every human being has to pee and poop on a daily basis,” Ouellette said to the room.
Before concluding with a price comparison between the cost of maintaining the Welcome Center’s bathrooms and the new cameras installed in city hall used by Manchester Community Television, Ouellette pressed the Aldermen about the city employee who cleans the downtown bathrooms.
“You go to the entrance of the bathroom … and the stench is horrible … yet we’re being told that someone, a contractor for the city, cleans them every week. What are they cleaning?”
Ouellette would just like someone to take this seriously. At the end of the meeting, he seemed to think that had not been achieved.
“We’ll keep trying,” he said, “I’m not going to give up.”