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Jewish Journal

Why bus stops smell like urine

by Susan Esther Barnes

August 7, 2013 | 1:00 am

Photo from Wikimedia/Downtowngal

A friend queried on Facebook, “Why oh why can't BART be clean??? The Embarcadero station smells like a latrine!” It didn’t take long for someone to respond, “Because people are disgusting and have peed all over the stairs.”

It’s so sad the first thing that springs to people’s mind is that subway stations, bus stops, and other public places smell like urine because people are disgusting. Not only does it insult perfect strangers, it completely ignores the root problem.

When tackling this question, I start with the idea that all people were created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God. God is not disgusting. People are not disgusting. Face it, no sane person wakes up in the morning and thinks, “What disgusting thing can I do today?”

“But,” you may argue, “It is disgusting to urinate in a public place like that. Why don’t they use a toilet like everyone else?”

Let’s take a good look at that question. Why don’t they use a toilet? If no sane person does disgusting things on purpose, maybe some of the people who do it do, in fact, have mental problems. Which raises the question, why are they out on the street? Why are they not being cared for in a way and in a place that they aren’t out wandering the streets, urinating in public?

But they’re not all mentally ill. I would bet most of them aren’t. And they have perfectly good reasons to urinate in public places.

For one thing, many public places don’t have public toilets. Many subway stations have “public” toilets only in places where paying customers are allowed to enter. Many people can’t afford the price of a ticket to get in.

Many people have no place in which to shelter at night. They have no toilet at home they can use, because they have no home. Most places with toilets, like restaurants, are closed at night, and many establishments won’t let people who appear to be homeless use their toilets even when they are open.

It’s heartless.

The reason people urinate in public places is my fault, and yours. It is because we are not doing enough to provide shelter and mental health care to those who need it. It is because we are not exerting enough pressure on our public servants to ensure there are enough facilities available to everyone who needs a bed, a shower, or even something as simple as a toilet. It’s because we allow people who are mentally ill to fend for themselves on the streets.

Why do bus stops smell like urine? Because you and I would rather think badly of our fellow human beings than take a good, hard look at the problem, and then do what is necessary to fix it.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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