Many of downtown Baltimore’s buildings are slowly being washed away. The problem is less flooding and rain, more golden showers.
That’s right, pee is eroding thousands of historic buildings downtown, the exterior bases corroding with every spurt.
Like a yellow Sharpie, it’s highlighting long-standing tensions in Baltimore: the decline of a once bustling city center, dwindling public spaces and the enduring needs of the local homeless population.
Baltimore is not alone. For as long as people have made buildings, there have been people who peed on them.
The acidic liquid is also wreaking havoc on the world’s tallest church in Germany, the historic streets of Paris, and medieval inns in London, where cities have opted to install “urine deflectors” and “open sidewalk urinals” to redirect bold tinklers.
Baltimore’s considering another approach: more public restrooms.
City officials and the Downtown Partnership are working to install several restrooms throughout downtown sometime in 2025. Exact locations, timelines and costs are still to be determined.
The city’s lack of public restrooms is almost as historic as its buildings. Despite the homeless community asking for decades, the city resisted erecting more until recently.
“lt’s something that we all need. It’s a human need,” said Lauren Siegel, a social worker who has spent decades working with Baltimore’s homeless community.
And a novel bathroom design could make them safe and useful for all Baltimoreans.
Inside a pee epicenter
The block of North Howard between Lexington and Saratoga street is, in many ways, a pee epicenter.
It’s not a destination unto itself, but a thoroughfare to other parts of the city. Bookended by light rail and bus stops, the street is lined with a smattering of convenience stores and vacant department stores, stately relics from Baltimore’s past.
“This was not the way Baltimore was,” said Clyde Nelson, reminiscing about downtown’s bygone days. A Baltimore native, he used to shop at 228 W. Lexington St. as a kid when it was Stewart’s Department Store.
It’s one of over 82,000 historic buildings in Baltimore City, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. That’s out of the roughly 237,000 spanning the city, over half of which were built before 1945.
Now the old department store is the Catholic Relief Services building, where Nelson has spent the past 16 years routinely power-washing excrement out of the back alleyway as a facilities technician.
Many of these older buildings were built with soft brick and mortar, according to city planner Caitlin Audette, who is consulting with Downtown Partnership on the public bathroom project. These buildings are more susceptible to damage from outside elements like water and, obviously, pee, which can degrade the soft material over time, “especially if it’s a constant exposure.”
“It doesn’t even matter what time it is. Every day and night,” said local business owner Mohammed Kabir. “It’s relentless.”
He operates a convenience store at the corner of North Howard and Clay streets, a narrow alley with few cars and little foot traffic.
Kabir has only been working at this location for the past six months, where, in an attempt to ward off the stench, he’s developed a daily routine of disinfecting and scrubbing the building’s bricks, which have started to crack and crumble.
He’s called anyone he can think of to help — be it City Hall or the Baltimore Police Department. They did make some attempt to alleviate the issue, he said. Now there’s a sign on Clay Street that says, “No Peeing.”
Kabir also put security cameras outside his store, hoping they’d deter urinary culprits — to no avail. One man even came into the store to ask Kabir why he mounted the cameras.
“For our safety,” Kabir said.
“No, we pee here,’” the man responded.
A historic problem
Siegel, the social worker, was surprised to hear about the public bathroom initiative.
Baltimore used to be sparsely dotted with public restrooms “many moons ago,” she said, but, over time, and it’s unclear how or why, they quietly disappeared.
“It’s been an issue among homeless service providers and advocates for at least 40 years,” Siegel said. “And usually the city is not behind it.”
Downtown Partnership wasn’t always, either.
In 2002, the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office cracked down on “nuisance” crimes, specifically public urination, in the west side of downtown. At the time, Downtown Partnership supported the effort despite outcry from Baltimore’s homeless advocates telling The Baltimore Sun that these “so-called nuisance crimes must stop for the west-side revitalization to succeed.”
Fast forward two decades. Downtown is still in need of revitalizing — and the pee is still flowing.
When former State’s Attorney’s Marilyn Mosby decriminalized victimless crimes in 2021, residents expressed concerns specifically with public urination, calling it “a public health problem” that worsened during the pandemic.
There is no data to prove this empirically, but anecdotally, multiple people told The Banner they also found that more people are relieving themselves in public than usual.
Since the pandemic, Nelson said he had to ramp up his cleaning efforts in the alley behind Catholic Relief Services. Audette, the city planner, said she gets calls from local businesses “at least once a month” (usually more during the summer) about pee on businesses, monuments, or other structures downtown.
“I don’t think you know that when you become a city planner that you’ll discuss pee so much,” Audette said. “But I think it’s probably just that they don’t know who else to call.”
Downtown Baltimore has gained some public restrooms in recent years with the reopening of Rash Field Park and the Baltimore Visitor Center. However, both only operate for limited hours and are far away from the heart of downtown.
‘If we have to go, we gotta go’
Baltimore’s homeless population arguably stands to gain the most from more public bathrooms, a change they’ve long been advocating.
James Williams, who spent decades on the streets before securing housing this last year, is thrilled to hear of the planned additions.
“We don’t want to disrespect the public,” Williams said. “But if we have to go, we gotta go.”
When he was homeless, Williams had to get creative to find a private place to pee: in quiet alleyways or behind abandoned buildings. These options might help preserve dignity, but to Williams, they also pose a safety concern that public bathrooms would largely fix.
“We don’t know where we can be safe going to the bathroom,” Williams said.
Many unhoused people congregate downtown to access the area’s homeless services, like Healthcare for the Homeless and Catholic Charities. Outside of those nonprofits, the homeless community is stranded without a place to go — to the bathroom or otherwise.
There are some reasons to believe the number of homeless Baltimoreans is going down.
A count earlier this year found fewer homeless people this year than last. Data from the annual count, part of a national effort to count every homeless person on a single day, can sometimes be unreliable. But the outcome is promising. The Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services attributed the decrease to COVID-19 emergency funding for rapid housing.
“I understand how deteriorating buildings would cause distress, although I’ve always been more distressed by the people who don’t have a place to use the bathroom,” Siegel said.
Over the 40 years Siegel has been working with Baltimore’s homeless population, her clients have always struggled to find restrooms, she said, putting themselves at risk of developing infections or soiling their clothes.
There are well-documented medical consequences to holding urine for too long. The National Institute of Health found it increased the likelihood of bladder infections, and according to Harvard Medical School, it can even make it harder to relieve yourself over time.
Some of the city’s past resistance to opening more public toilets is founded, she added. There is a history of public restrooms becoming havens for drug activities in Baltimore, according to Siegel, leading to genuine safety issues for the wider public.
However, there are solutions, she said, like having bathroom attendants and regular city oversight of the facilities.
Downtown Partnership’s Chief Marketing Officer Lauren Hamilton echoed some of these concerns in an interview with The Banner. To combat it, Hamilton said Downtown Partnership and the city are looking into bathroom designs that will not only benefit the local homeless population, but also deter illegal activity and promote cleanliness.
One design under consideration is the Portland Loo — a steel tube with open grating and outdoor sinks. The grating is carefully placed, allowing for both privacy and to see if the bathroom is in use. The Portland Loo itself is quite small, deterring multiple people from using it at once.
The toilet was first deployed in Portland, Oregon, a city that has historically struggled to keep homelessness at bay, and allegedly helped deter crime and maintain cleanliness. Portland Loos are now being used in Seattle, Miami and Cincinnati.
Work is still underway to locate and design the additional public toilets, according to Hamilton, but in the meantime, Downtown Partnership slated the redesign of the Liberty Dog Park near Lexington Market for 2024, which will also include a public restroom.
“It’s going to take a while,” Hamilton said. “But we do think that we could get a pilot up and running sooner rather than later.”
In other words, the project may be a trickle before it’s a stream.