Policing Our Bathroom Rights

From Vincentian Way of Service Mission Statement:

The Convocation is based around the Vincentian commitment to service and the experience of the poor, pledging to build transformative relationships amongst marginalized communities and those working towards justice for such communities. The Convocation strives to remember the inherent human dignity of the poor and to nurture that dignity through mutuality, integrity and solidarity.

The community at DePaul is not found in the overarching mission and values, but rather in the small facets of our everyday lives. This does not devalue the necessity of our overarching mission and values, including those of Vincentians. They tie us together, and remind us that though our paths and routes may be different, we all inherently want to make ourselves, and our community, a better, more just place.

We’ve found ourselves in a little corner of the world at DePaul University: The Roosevelt Institute. The Roosevelt Institute is filled with students from a wide array of backgrounds and studies hoping to change the not-so-just-rules of society. We’re small, but our spirit is mighty. Our slogan is “who writes the rules matters,” and we believe nothing less. We write and fight for policies, whether on our campus, in the city or statewide. We hold panels and discussions on topics central to our news stream, but also issues that don’t get brought up much, like food justice and access. Mainly, we keep our eyes and ears open looking for issues we believe need to be brought to light.

That’s why we’re writing today.

We begin each meeting by bouncing ideas and thoughts. We often ask questions such as “what is something that bothers you about DePaul or Chicago?” or “what have people in your classes been bringing up?” At the beginning of this academic year, someone brought up a shocking issue.

“At the Elizabeth Ann Seton Sandwich kitchen, nobody can use the bathroom […] They can’t on campus, either.”

What? We were all shocked. That didn’t seem right. A lot of topics we talk about don’t seem ‘right,’ but we couldn’t believe this was happening within our own campus. How could people, some of the most vulnerable people in our society, not be allowed to do one the most basic of human needs – use the bathroom?

The sandwich kitchen, run out of St. Vincent DePaul Parish, provides about 125 breakfast meals a day, six days a week. It’s been around since 1980, and survives by the volunteer work of parishioners and members of the Lincoln Park and DePaul community.  Many of the  individuals who utilize the kitchen are homeless. They’re on the streets, and get turned away from private businesses. But we’re DePaul! Back to those overarching mission and values: isn’t this when they’re supposed to matter the most?

So we got to work. We dug and dug, and then dug a bit deeper. The issue wasn’t really rooted at the sandwich kitchen, and to be honest, we’re still learning where these roots lead. Their bathroom situation isn’t ideal; their only bathroom is through the kitchen, and it’s single-stall. It’s hard for any sort of food distributing place, whether a restaurant or sandwich kitchen, to have their patrons enter the kitchen.

In the past, they’d also had incidents with people in the restroom doing not-so-ideal things, which made them even more hesitant especially since it is a single stall bathroom. Private, and even sometimes public, facilities that turn away individuals experiencing homelessness often cite drug use, sink bathing — where individuals clean themselves using the sink and bathroom soap — and a worry of possible violence, as reasons of their refusal.

In 2015, a man got charged with raping an eight-year-old boy in a public restroom. The man wasn’t experiencing homelessness, as Chicago’s CBS local reported the man’s home address. In 2016, another male got charged with choking an eight-year-old girl in a store bathroom in the South Loop. He wasn’t homeless, either, as the Chicago Tribune referred to him as “a West Loop man.” To this logic, should we deny all men the right to restroom facilities in fear of violence and sexual assault?

Incidents in restrooms, or frankly any sort of space, can be incited by any person of any demographic. It is not exclusive to individuals experiencing homelessness, and any sort of cited correlation is nothing less than profiling. This leaves our question of why individuals experiencing homelessness are not allowed to use the bathrooms at DePaul unanswered. It’s doubtful that anyone reading this right now has ever had to wait in line in a bathroom at the Student Center. While not officially a public space, many people walk into the Student Center all the time that have no affiliation with DePaul.

I have a roommate who goes to University of Chicago, and he walks all around the city. He’ll walk from Uptown to Michigan Ave and back again. DePaul is almost always one of his stops. Why? It’s a guaranteed “public” bathroom. It’s public for him, as no one questions him when he walks in the door and goes straight to the restroom. He doesn’t look homeless, he doesn’t look like he could “cause any trouble.”

But not everyone that’s experiencing homelessness appears homeless. More importantly, not everyone that looks homeless, or goes to a sandwich kitchen, is inherently going to ‘cause trouble.’

We have about 50 students at DePaul who are homeless at all times. 50 reporting students that feel comfortable enough to tell DePaul their situation. One could be sitting next to you in class. Many may be fed through the sandwich kitchen. Likely, they do not look like the stereotypical, (inaccurate) Americanized view of homelessness.

These students are not completely in the dark — DePaul does have programs to support these students. According to The DePaulia, “The Dax Host-Home program, named after the city where  St. Vincent DePaul went to college, is a resource offered for students looking for help. This program was created by DePaul USA, a national homelessness organization.” It offers students experiencing homelessness a host to stay with for a period of 12 weeks, often these hosts are staff and faculty members. On top of this, the students often go to the Mother Seton Food Pantry and Sandwich Kitchen, for a meal and a community. The roadblocks faced by these students are inherently different than those of other individuals experiencing homelessness, as others don’t have access to the same resources and support systems.

In the early hours of the morning, homeless individuals line up to go into St. Vincent DePaul Church for a meal and community support. At nearly this same time, public safety officers can be seen in the Student Center telling individuals to leave the facility who look like they “might cause trouble”  — whatever that may mean. You can hear phrasing like, “Hey buddy, you can’t be here” or “Ya gotta go, you gotta leave” and witness people getting escorted out.

We don’t necessarily think a hierarchical power has enforced this. Different officers have different philosophies on how to enforce policing with the ultimate goal of safety. While some are more reactionary to individual incidences, others would rather be proactive of policing those that could cause a threat. Either way, we know that this proactive policing style is not always justified, and can easily be labeled as profiling. These negative interactions are not rare, and we are not the first students on campus to say anything about them.

But in the spirit of The Roosevelt Institute we believe “who writes the rules matter,” and as DePaul students we acknowledge “what must be done.” We decided we must be the first students on campus to do something about it. These rules  —  or maybe, lack of coherency and transparency in policing  —  need to be reformed.

After taking a closer look at DePaul’s bathroom policy, we wondered if other private colleges around Chicago had similar rules in place. After some preliminary research, we discovered that many institutions do not have these policies readily available on their website, which presented another issue. What we did find was that some universities, such as Loyola University, had policies in place quite similar to DePaul’s.

At Loyola, Campus Safety serves as the primary method of safety for Student Center facilities, much like Public Safety’s role at DePaul. In addition, at Loyola “Campus Safety is responsible for the opening/closing of facilities and make final decisions (in conjunction with Student Center administration) as to who is allowed in Student Center facilities.” Much like DePaul’s vague policy, Loyola leaves the ultimate discretion of who can use their restrooms and who can’t to their Campus Safety and members of their Student Center administration. This places these judgments in the hands of a small number of individuals, which could lead to biases like those seen at DePaul.

Ultimately, as a Vincentian institution, DePaul needs to step up and create a clear, inclusive policy that ensures all individuals are equally welcomed to use Student Center bathrooms, as all individuals have the same needs no matter their circumstances.

toilet paper

We’ve talked to many people during this process – from conversations with peers, to meetings with university employees in order to get a wide variety of perspectives. Students have tweeted about the lack of dignity in treatment towards vulnerable individuals on our campus. Others have told us of their personal encounters after hearing about our work. We thought it would be interesting to sit down with Howard Rosing, the Director of the Steans Center, whose mission is as follows:

The Steans Center develops mutually beneficial relationships with community organizations to engage DePaul students in educational opportunities grounded in Vincentian values of respect for human dignity and the quest for social justice.

Howard’s work both in and out of the Steans Center and the DePaul community is with the most vulnerable populations. He lives out the Vincentian mission of our school. After chatting with Howard about our concerns, he summarized his viewpoint.

“At the Steans Center, we partner with homeless and hunger-relief services across Chicago to engage DePaul students and faculty in support of those with the least wherewithal,” Howard said. “Given our mission and commitment to engaging this sector of society through curriculum, internships and co-curricular service, it’s really important for us to consider seriously how we welcome economically distressed Chicagoans who show up at our campus doorstep.”

Howard is right. It is important to consider how we welcome these individuals. When looking into university policies, we noticed different buildings have different policies. The library’s policy is clean and concise, considered open to the public until 11 p.m., at which point a student or faculty ID must be presented to enter or remain in the building. The policy at the Student Center is worded a bit differently:

The Student Centers of DePaul University are the centers of community activity.

The Student Centers are looked to as DePaul’s gathering places by providing amenities and services to promote out-of-classroom interaction between students, faculty and staff. We become the Main Street of DePaul inviting the community into our welcoming and comfortable environments.

This wording is ambiguous. Who is considered a member of DePaul’s community and deserves to be greeted with the “welcoming and comfortable environment?” We argue that if someone is invited to share a meal with members of our community, they are a member of our community. But who is in charge of drawing the line? Is it based solely on a person’s appearance? After discussing our personal stories, talking to other students and staff, and researching the vagueness of policies, we think clarification and reform is necessary.

If you’re going to have a rule, it needs to be explicitly stated. If our university wants to have a system where all buildings are solely for student, faculty, and staff use, so be it. But, this vague policy leads to a lack of transparency and coherency in enforcement. It leaves tough decisions to the discretion of workers. This isn’t a productive system for any party involved, and it leads to questionably discriminatory practices.

At the end of the day, no matter what our university’s policies are, we need to do better at treating those that step onto our campus with inherent dignity. No one should be escorted out in a patronizing fashion, and no one should have to leave without having another place to go. Our university does a great job of instilling values and a sense of justice in all of us, and it is left to us to use the lessons learned to question our internal policies and practices.

The mission and values of DePaul will not be taken seriously by our own students and the community at large if they are not practiced how they are preached. Whether religious or not, Vincentian values hold true to our heart. They have inspired us to question any sort of systemic or individual oppression, and make us see the world in a different light.

So thank you, DePaul, for teaching us to question “what must be done?” You’ve asked, and we’ve decided. Something must be done to humanize those we have so silently profiled and quietly discriminated against inside our own walls.

Maybe we should install a new bathroom in the sandwich kitchen, maybe we should let patrons use the Student Center bathrooms, or maybe we should let our facilities actually be public until certain hours. There are many tangible solutions to this problem that could be debated and discussed, but we’ve discovered some of the deepest roots of this issue are in the intangibilities. We must change the compartmentalization of justice in our community, and we must live out the words and mission that we so publicly preach.

 

If you have any information regarding these practices, or want to get involved in Roosevelt’s efforts, please email them directly at roodepaul@gmail.com.


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