Bathroom brouhaha bubbled to the surface in disparate regions of the country last week on the same day – and for very different reasons.
These two toilet traumas papered over the real issues in both Houston and D.C.
A ballot measure in Space City delivered a resoundingly wide margin defeat of a transgender-inclusive non-discrimination ordinance in the nation’s fourth largest city with a population greater than 15 states. Despite supporters of the law outspending opponents nearly three-to-one, voters overturned a Houston City Council measure largely on the strength of a campaign raising public fears about men using women’s bathrooms if personally deemed consistent with their gender identity.
Had the law been upheld it would have extended civil protections based on 15 separate characteristics, of which sexual orientation and gender identity were only two. Similar laws are already in effect in the Texas cities of Dallas, Austin, Forth Worth, Plano and San Antonio, as well as most major cities and nearly 20 states covering a combined majority of the national population.
No bastion of backwardness, Houston is governed by a term-limited lesbian mayor elected three times and with local legislators eager to approve one of the most expansive anti-discrimination laws in the country. It’s a diverse city with racial and ethnic minorities comprising more than 70 percent of residents.
It was the inability of those supporting the law to both combat the potty predator propaganda and win votes among blacks and Hispanics included in its protections that turned the tide. Polls had shown the once-popular measure earlier enjoying a sizable lead among voters. It was the controversy over transgender bathroom selection that opponents utilized to overturn it.
In the District, the Council intensely, heatedly and emotionally argued over whether to mandate that future family shelter facilities be required to provide individual bathrooms in each unit. Mayor Bowser’s nascent plan to replace the broke-down D.C. General behemoth with smaller shelters scattered across the city relies on both private bathrooms and facilities shared by up to five units, depending on structural configurations. Guaranteeing private bathrooms for all families reportedly requires a $28 million additional expenditure for a projected six sites.
It was defeated by a 9-4 vote.
Of note, arguments for guaranteeing individual bathrooms echoed those influencing the Houston anti-discrimination ballot battle. A survey of families warehoused at the city’s dilapidated and badly managed shelter indicated that sending children unaccompanied to shared bathrooms caused significant safety fears.
However, as in Houston, the debate obscured and substituted for what should have been the focus and discussion.
Three decades ago D.C. became a pioneer in sheltering the homeless. In 1984, District voters made the city the first in the country to guarantee provision of “safe, sanitary, and accessible shelter space, offered in an atmosphere of reasonable dignity.” The city has now fallen far behind other jurisdictions in developing and implementing innovative and successful programs both offering shelter and moving the homeless toward permanent housing and sustainable lives.
D.C. is stuck in an outdated mode of simply corralling the homeless in squalid conditions at extraordinary expense or outsourcing them to motel rooms at great cost. At a price per family of nearly $55,000 per year to do so little so poorly, the District government could place homeless families in shiny new penthouse apartments in the city’s most desirable neighborhoods.
Pitiful program performance without improvements in outcomes has become the trademark of local services. Worse, elected officials seem content to aspire to less than the success of other locales in addressing the same intractable problems in similarly daunting housing markets.
Until officials stop wrangling over bathrooms and begin to exercise appropriate oversight, insist on public-private sector partnerships succeeding elsewhere, and undertake the hard work of implementing comprehensive approaches that alter lives, the homeless and the poor will remain relegated to the endless horror of government agency caretaker dependency.
Houston has a problem with bathrooms, but this week D.C. did too.