After living in a suburb for most of my life, when I moved to a major U.S. city the first thing I noticed was the feces. At first I assumed it was dog poop, but my naivety didn’t last long.

One day I saw a homeless man waddling towards me at a fast speed while holding his ass cheeks. He turned into an alley and took a shit. As I passed him, there was a moment where our eyes met. He sheepishly averted his gaze.

The next day I walked to the same place. There are a number of businesses on both sides of the street that probably all have bathrooms. I walked into each of them to investigate.

In a coffee shop, I saw a homeless woman ask the barista if she could use the bathroom. “Sorry, that bathroom is for customers only.” I waited five minutes and then inquired from the barista if I could use the bathroom (even though I hadn’t ordered anything). “Sure! The bathroom code is 0528.” 

The other businesses I entered also had policies for ‘customers only’. Nearly all of them allowed me to use the bathroom despite not purchasing anything. 

If I was that homeless guy, I would have shit in that alley, too.

I receive more compliments from homeless people compared to the women I go on dates with

There’s this one homeless guy—a big fella who looks intimidating—I sometimes pass on my walk to the gym. The first time I saw him, he put on a big smile and said in a booming voice, “Hey there! I hope you’re having a blessed day!” Without making eye contact (because I didn’t want him to ask me for money), I mumbled “thanks” and quickly walked away.

I saw him again a few weeks later. With another beaming smile he exclaimed, “You must be going to the gym—you’re looking fit, my man!” I blushed and replied, “I appreciate it, have a good day.” He then added, “God bless you, sir!” Being non-religious, that made me a little uncomfortable.

With our next encounter, I found myself smiling as I approached him. This time I greeted him first, “Good afternoon!” His face lit up with glee. “Sir, that’s very kind of you. I appreciate that. God bless you!” Without hesitation I responded, “God bless you, too!” I’m not sure the last time I’ve uttered those words; I don’t even say ‘bless you’ after people sneeze.

We say hi to each other regularly now. His name is George.


Is that guy dead?

Coming home one day, I saw a disheveled man lying facedown on the sidewalk.

He’s not moving. I crouched to hear if he’s breathing. Nothing. 

I looked up and saw a lady in a car next to me stopped at a red light. We made eye contact and I gestured towards the guy as if to say what the fuck do we do? Her answer was to grip the steering wheel and aggressively stare in front of her until the light turned green and she sped off.

Not knowing if I needed to call an ambulance, I asked him, “Hey buddy, you okay?” I heard back a muffled, “AYE KENT GEEUP!”


Well, at least he’s not dead. 


“Uhh, what was that? You doing okay?” This time a more articulate, “I CAN’T GET UP,” escaped from him. Despite his clothes being somewhat dirty and not wanting to touch him, I helped him to his feet.

With one look on his face I could tell that he wasn’t all there. I asked him if he knew where he was or if he needed help, but he could only reply with gibberish. It could have been drugs; it could have been mental illness. With confirmation that he wasn’t dead and was able to walk around, I went home.

Who’s giving Brazilian waxes to the homeless?

I was walking behind a homeless man the other day. He was wearing an extra long flannel and sagging his pants low.

Suddenly, he noticed his (one and only) shoe was untied and fixed it promptly by executing a full standing pike. I wasn’t expecting him to have the flexibility of a gymnast.

In doing so, his flannel lifted up to reveal his dick and balls. The strangest thing? Fully shaved. Who’s going around giving pro bono Brazilian waxes to the homeless?


Crazy people talk to themselves because no one else will

Walking to the library one day, I noticed a homeless woman muttering to herself. There was an aura of urine about her. She was missing several teeth. 

When she spotted me, she asked for twenty dollars. My father taught me to never give homeless people money because “they’ll just use it for drugs and alcohol.” I wasn’t busy, so I sat down next to her on the sidewalk and asked, “how’s your day going?”

She launched into a tirade about why her life sucks—it was mostly incoherent and I assumed she was crazy. After about ten minutes, she paused. She skittishly made eye contact with me and said “sorry.”


“Why are you apologizing?” 

“Well, sometimes I ramble. But that’s because I have no one to talk to.”

“It’s probably lonely living on the streets.”



Once she realized I wasn’t going to abruptly leave, she asked me about myself and a conversation ensued. Over the next thirty minutes I learned that in the course of her life:

  • She used to be a groupie for famous rock bands in San Francisco during the 1960s.
  • Living the groupie lifestyle, she experimented with different drugs until she became a meth addict (hence the missing teeth).
  • Broke and addicted to meth at forty years old, she moved back in with her parents.
  • While living at home during this time, her brother began to rape her regularly. He told her that if she spoke up he would tell the police about her meth stash.
  • She spoke up. Nobody in her family believed her that her brother was raping her. Her brother stayed true to his word and reported her to the authorities. She served multiple years in prison for possession of meth.
  • When she was released, she had nowhere to go since her family had disowned her. She’s been homeless ever since. Sometimes she’s woken up by strangers raping her.


At the end of our conversation, she wished me well and said, “enjoy the library!”

“Have you forgotten how our conversation began?”


“You were asking me for twenty dollars.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“What did you need the money for?”

“My bike’s inner tube is punctured and I’d like to buy a new one.”


I gave her twenty dollars. She shook my hand and said, “God bless you.”

Her name is Teresa.

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[-]Jiao Bu11313

Taiwan has the second lowest violent crime on Earth, right after Japan.  I am an Engineer, I have two masters degrees, and have made decent money in both Taiwan and the USA.  I spent a summer and most of an autumn unhoused in Taiwan.  In Taipei, I often slept on benches near Hell Valley, and woke up and went to the hotspring in the morning with the older folks who liked to go at that time.  Other times I slept around Banciao or other side of the river.  Several nice nights, I would wake up to drunk college kids hanging out around me, occasionally falling asleep or passing out for a couple of hours in the same parks I liked.

I got a scooter for about $200 and went further South.  Initially I slept in the little gazebos, and later I slept anywhere, and got a hammock with a bugnet to hang up in the trees.  I slept on the toy trains in the town South of Sun Moon lake.  I slept by the old tree on the Pacific side of Hehuan (and liked camping at various heights on mount Hehuan in the summer, as I could effectively pick the temperature at night).  Could swim by waterfalls or snorkel in the ocean near Hualien, then motor to a comfortable altitude... (read more)


I am inclined to think "this is polluting the commons". All the things you used to survive are meant to be used by people who have homes and only occasionally need those things (and often pay indirectly, such as by making purchases in a store where they use the bathroom). The fact that they are free is a price structure that is only possible because people who use them are occasional users who rarely need them. Deliberately going without a home in the knowledge that you can survive using the free services is using much more than your fair share of the commons and if many people behaved like you, the free services would disappear.

Of course, you can argue "if they didn't want homeless people using them, they shouldn't provide them for free to homeless people". The consequence of this attitude, at large, is why we can't have nice things.

This is an interesting point, and I like the perspective.  The main ingredients needed for my adventures were (1) lack of crime and (2) spaces, such as clean restrooms, forests, and some of the gazebos such as along the road in He Huan Mountain.  The hot springs at Hell Valley, I paid for, and of course I paid for food and gas and such.

I think (1) is common to most of Asia, and I have had several friends who did similar things in China, which is a bit poorer than Taiwan.  China is interesting in that almost every American female who is there for awhile will eventually comment, "This is amazing, I can walk around at 3AM in a big city and know I won't be assaulted."  Used to be that way in South India, to a lesser extent, where I did a version of this for about six months, actually eating for free in many cases (such as the Ashram's giveaway food in Thiruvannamalai) and people have been doing for centuries.  I would not recommend it now, but that's due to politics.  And some people do have guns in India.  There are stray dogs, too.  And the wealth distribution wasn't so good there.  Just after I left, the "eve teasing" thing started, then ... (read more)


Possessing a home also imposes costs on everyone else - it costs scarce materials and labor to build, equip, and electrify/warm/cool/water a home, and it uses up scarce space in a way that excludes others. It’s not obvious that a homeless person who works & is taxed, and is thus contributing to collective capacity to build and maintain the amenities they take advantage of, is a free rider; you’d need to actually do the math to demonstrate that.

Society is set up to function under the assumption that most people have homes and are imposing those "costs". It is not set up to function under the assumption that a lot of people are homeless and use public restrooms, sleep in public places, etc. Those things can only exist because they are used by a small number of people under a rare set of circumstances. You can describe homes as using "scarce space" but there's enough "scarce" space that most people can have homes and use some of it. The public restrooms in existence couldn't handle a situation where even 10% of the population was homeless, never mind most of the population.
9Jiao Bu
If society evolved to 10% unhoused but working, healthy, and non criminal, I strongly suspect systems could be adapted. Non-destitute tent cities could likely be supported as easily as a large fairgrounds. It’s possible then that the balance of outliers such as me are because most people just want to be housed? So the balance of light amenities for the unhoused in Taiwan is at equilibrium (and needs more amenities in the USA, probably). NB that surely I am not the first or only person in TW to do this. The countryside night-market culture seems possibly to involve healthy non criminal transient merchants for example. At any rate, implicitly the system is designed for the number of people doing this. No? Back to my question above, what actual drain did I pose on society? If I could know what those are, I could mitigate them. I will likely be back in Taiwan to continue my permanent residency visa in 2025. I will be bringing in outside money and again probably living out of a bike or a motorcycle. Other than keeping things clean and obeying laws, what should I do to make sure I haven’t done harm?
No. That's like saying that stores' budgets are designed to allow for a certain amount of shoplifting (which is true), so it's okay to shoplift. The fact that the system is designed to survive some amount of cheating, and that it doesn't spend as much effort to catch cheaters as it could, doesn't make cheating okay. That depends on your definition of drain. If by "drain" you mean "used far more than your fair share" everything you did that wouldn't be done so often by someone with a home was a drain. Your post mentions using public restrooms, using public places for sleeping, and being protected from crime even though you lived in the streets (and presumably was more vulnerable to crime than you would be in a home). Get a home? (And if your answer is "that means I have to pay for my restroom and sleeping space, and that would cost me money", that's pretty much the point.)
7Jiao Bu
Thank you for the ongoing conversation.  I do appreciate this. "If by "drain" you mean "used far more than your fair share" everything you did that wouldn't be done so often by someone with a home was a drain." Why should we assume "cost" by default when not conforming to systemic expectations?  And why should we assume others doing it should have a bad result? I think that would only be a drain if someone else's use was diminished afterwards.  You never mention, for example, my days spent snorkeling in Hualien.  Hours and hours and hours for several weeks with my head in the water, looking at starfish and such.  This was arguably "more than my fair share" but I did not diminish the resource for anyone else who wants to use it.  And this is also something that might not be done by someone who is paying for a home.  I think it's not instinctively mentioned in the conversation because we both know I could do this essentially infinitely and not diminish anyone else's use of that commons. Likewise, if I leave everything in the condition I found it, am not breaking laws, and paying for food, gas, taxes, and whatever else I need or want, then what is our definition of "drain?" or even "fair share?"  Fair share is a more complicated term because some who have houses got them free, perhaps through inheritance, along with money, or even regular middle class people might be using more of the countryside in a destructive way in their time off than I am (such as the trashed up barbeque sites you see along many rivers in Taiwan). To delve into this a bit more, you may be effectively saying that we should look at any existing system, and regardless of our views on it, we owe it an attempt to conform to what we assume it assumes.  It seems that could fail on multiple vectors, no? We need something clearer than just "I think this society expects x, and so I assume that doing other than x is destroying the commons." To think of it another way, if a culture of (lawful and clea

You never mention, for example, my days spent snorkeling in Hualien.

I never mention it because you are not overusing it compared to someone in a home.

even regular middle class people might be using more of the countryside in a destructive way in their time off than I am

"People who are not causing the particular harm I am causing, may be causing different sorts of harm" doesn't really justify it.

To think of it another way, if a culture of (lawful and clean) vagabonds were to evolve in Taiwan, for all we know it might create a new culture of innovation, versus the “lie flat” culture that some of Asia is falling pray to.

This is a rationalization. It's like saying "if a culture of shoplifters arose, for all we know it could create a culture of innovation, where stores benefit from the publicity caused by shoplifting, customers consider stores with frequent shoplifters to have high quality goods so shoplifting attracts customers, tourists shoplift occasionally but spend more money in the areas where they shoplift, etc." You can always invent hypothetical scenarios where your harm doesn't really cause harm. The clause after the "for all we know" is wishful thinking and supported by nothing whatsoever.

Seriously, being homeless might create a Silicon Valley?

1Jiao Bu
You still aren't telling me why I should assume I am contributing to bad outcomes instead of good ones or neutral ones without actual any actual crime or damage being done.  I'm not building anything resembling a shoplifting ring here. Let me try to think some of this through that you might be getting at.  One of the things you mention is my depending on the lower crime rates.  This is the single thing that keeps me from doing the exact same thing in the USA.  In fact I/other people do the same thing in the USA sometimes, such as camping on national parklands, or even sleeping at a rest stop, even frequenting the same stop multiple times when it seems clearly safe. So then the first question is, "Did I personally contribute to an increased crime rate or decreased safety on the island?"  I think the answer is obviously no, but I would be interested to hear if I am overlooking something. The second question would be, "What mass of people, if doing the same thing, would increase the crime rate?"  This is harder to get into, and requires some speculation.   First of all, Taiwan does not allow any private handgun ownership, and very little private gun ownership in any form.  Secondly, I think East Asian culture is less prone to interpersonal violence.  The Chinese cities, even where there is increased poverty, don't pose the same kind of threat as most urban areas in the USA.  In Taiwan, a random mugging or victimization is rare.  In Japan it's close to non-existant.  There is still Domestic violence, but nothing that a vagabond who isn't partnered to a violent person need worry about.  I think the lack of crime is largely baked into the culture, and non-destitute, non-criminal unhoused are highly unlikely to really move any needles on this. But let's say that a bunch of people decided to do what I did.  I think one group might be the sort of miscreants who generally stay up using alcohol and stimulants and playing video games in internet bars.  A few have made inte
You didn't commit extra crimes, but it requires more resources to protect you from crimes. (And again, since you are a single person, the extra resources get lost in the noise. But if many people did this, there would be more crime.) I could say the same thing about the shoplifter. There are scenarios where shoplifting might, in theory, be a benefit to the stores. It would not be possible to prove that these scenarios are false. Maybe it really is true that tourists like being able to occasionally shoplift and otherwise spend enough money to make up for the loss. You can invent an infinite number of such scenarios. What I can observe, however, is that stores don't gather together to promote an area of town as the shoplifting district, and nobody's trying to legalize shoplifting. The people who would best know about the consequences seem to think the bad outcomes are the realistic scenario. Likewise, Taiwan doesn't take out ads saying "come to Taiwan and experience being homeless" or even have designated homeless encampment areas, shopping malls don't compete on how good their homeless person amenities are, and I really doubt that being homeless gives you high status among your colleagues at work, if you even told them.
3Jiao Bu
"You didn't commit extra crimes, but it requires more resources to protect you from crimes. (And again, since you are a single person, the extra resources get lost in the noise. But if many people did this, there would be more crime.)" Is me creating an opportunity for someone to commit a crime constitute my doing something bad to the commons or is it on the actual criminals?  It seems you are quite literally blaming (potential) victims for their drag on society.  Doesn't 100% of the responsibility for that, and whatever costs are incurred lie with those who would do the crimes? The rest of it, about shoplifting, seems hard to connect, as no one is advocating doing something illegal.  I think what I said above about creating slack is less speculative than you are making it out to be (especially given many of the real conditions, as I pointed out above). To try and do justice to the rest of your post...  are you saying that people would just see someone riding around the island, camping outside as a public nuisance, basically, and dislike it, so therefore it shouldn't be done? (A)  What would balance the "dislike" concern?  I give you credit that you do not believe we should infinitely defer to the possibility that society would find a set of actions distasteful.  I guess it is correct that a few frowns if someone found out I was sleeping in a Hammock in the woods might matter, though we don't also know who would think it was cool.  FWIW, old people walking on the mountain trails some mornings who saw me camping out usually smiled and said "Oh, ni li hai!" ("You are very capable" which is normally a compliment).  So how much deference do we owe to what amounts to speculations of distaste? (B)  A lot of the objection also seems to revolve around speculation that "if more people did this, a cascade of bad outcomes would happen."  I think this is resolvable to (1) apparently there is systemic equilibrium in that most other people empirically do not choose to do thi
It's on both. The shoplifting comparison has nothing to do with whether shoplifting is illegal. The point of the comparison is that you can endlessly speculate that something really has a positive effect by imagining some scenario where it does. I am able to imagine such a positive effect for shoplifting, but it would not convince you that shoplifting is positive. I'm not going to be convinced that homelessness is positive by you imagining some scenario where it is. My answer to this is the same as for the similar question about shoplifting: I would expect that if homelessness or shoplifting had a positive effect, stores and governments would act as though it does. You personally cannot become "okay" on your own--you don't get to decide that your shoplifting is actually contributing more to tourist publicity than it harms the stores, and you don't get to decide that your homelessness creates a positive contribution.
Would you apply that to other examples of loss leaders too? When I buy a Ryanair ticket with no priority boarding, a randomly assigned seat and no luggage and don't buy anything on the plane, should I feel guilty because if everybody paid as little as me the flight wouldn't be net profitable for Ryanair? If not, what's the difference?
I'd ask you to estimate the distribution of the loss leader among customers and compare your usage of it to the average rate, and maybe the high end rate. I necessarily have to make up numbers, but I wouldn't be surprised if 50% of airline seats were cheap seats. It would then be impossible for you to use cheap seats at more than twice the rate of the average person. I'd also expect that even without you, there would be a substantial number of customers who use cheap seats all the time. If a substantial number use them all the time, you being a person that uses them all the time is not greatly far from what is expected. And I'd expect that the rate at which you take trips doesn't differ greatly from the rate at which those other people take trips. It's true that if everyone only bought cheap seats, the price structure would be unsustainable. But there's a big difference between something that would be unsustainable if everyone did it and something that would be unsustainable if done by even a relatively small number of people. If 5% of the population used public restrooms as often as a homeless person, public restrooms would become unsustainable, never mind "everyone". Also, some of the amenities in question are run by the government. The government doesn't do loss leaders; it doesn't let you camp out in public parks because it wants to attract more paying customers who incidentally might want to sleep there. It's a government, it runs on taxes.
Airline tickets are a bad example because they are priced dynamically. So if more people find/exploit the current pricing structure, the airline will (and does) shift the pricing slightly until it remains profitable.
Thank you for sharing your experience. There is a balance in societies between tolerance for crime and tolerance for imperfect enforcement of law in ways that might rob the accused of some rights. I don't know much about Taiwan, but by all accounts the Japanese penal system accepts a substantially higher rate of false positives in punishing the accused. This trade-off point might make a lot of sense in a society with a lower overall disposition towards violent crime.
[-]Jiao Bu14-1

Lower wealth disparity also results in lower crime, particularly lower violent crimes.  Taiwan generally has a fairly "sleepy" government and penal system.  And for many types of crimes, you can buy your sentence off for the equivalent of about $30 a day (1000 NTD).  Not a lot of private gun ownership (non-zero, as aboriginals can hunt, and there are (very very few) skeet ranges, but even the president's secret service got into trouble for having a handgun in an unauthorized way).  I've found very stressed and deformed rimfire cartridges out in the woods, apparently from homemade hunting rifles.  That's about it.

The wealth distribution in Taiwan has been great though.  Of course, Forumosa Plastics (Wang family), TSMC, Asus, and a few other giants have made bank, but what you find is a vast quantity of people got their "fair share" there.  Education rates are high (According to Farid Zakharia, in our Legislative Yuan, nearly everyone has Masters or PhD degrees, highest education in any legislative body on the planet.  I'll also point to a decent gender split, not quite 50%).  First Asian country to legalize gay marriage, and Taipei has be... (read more)

Is your claim that reducing wealth disparity causes violent crime reduction, or just that smaller wealth disparity is correlated with lower violent crime rates?  If the former, then I'm quite interested in reading your epistemic justification for it.
1Jiao Bu
"Violent crimes of desperation increase because of greater wealth disparity" seems sensible.  The greater wealth disparity being the cause of the desperation that instigates the crimes.  The OP here is about vast wealth disparity causing social deviance, in some sense. However, "In a situation where wealth is more equitably distributed, there are fewer crimes of desperation" seems like they could both be coming from the same font of "Our society is good and cares about its people and takes good care of them."  The OP of this thread is also about this. "Violent crime is causing greater wealth disparity" makes sense only in places where warlords, drug kingpins, or oligarchic criminals are building empires. I think East Asian islands have a combination of 1 and 2.  In Taiwan, the 30-40 year boom saw most people getting a piece of the pie.  Few are desperate enough to resort to violent crimes.  Does this seem reasonable?  Perhaps especially compared to places like the USA or increasingly Europe where you have a sizable portion of people who do not get their fair share of the pie in exchange for their life's time, with resulting despair, desperation, and etc...
It looks to me like here you are saying "Reducing the number of impoverished people causes a reduction in violent crime."  I believe this proposition is at least plausible.  But isn't it a quite different claim from "Reducing the amount of wealth disparity causes a reduction in violent crime."? Specifically, the number of impoverished people and the amount of wealth disparity are not the same thing (although empirically they may have some common relationship in the contemporary world).  Consider two possible societies of 100 people: * (A) Each person has a net worth of $500. * (B) Half the people have a net worth of $75,000 and the other half have a net worth of $3,000,000. Notice, (B) has more wealth disparity than (A), but it also has fewer impoverished people than (A).  And I would expect (B) to have less violent crime than (A). Does this seem correct to you?

I'm a lawyer (NY licensed) working in Tokyo, and this account of the Japanese penal system is incorrect. Prosecutors in Japan are extremely, extremely hesitant to bring a criminal case into the penal system, and so when cases are brought they are far beyond "a reasonable doubt". As a slightly misleading short summary, this, rather than lack of concern for false positives, is the reason for the notorious 99% conviction rate of criminal cases in Japan. 

I've also been unhoused in a few different countries for short periods of time. 
I'm certain that my affinity for Japan has its roots in needing this peaceful cultural of public safety.

2[comment deleted]

This was awesome. Here are some more stories in the same style.

Homeless person or professor?

It can be hard to tell in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That's partly because some professors—mostly the MIT ones—can look very disheveled. But partly it's because some homeless people can be surprisingly intellectual, e.g. it's not uncommon to find homeless people crouched in the shade reading a book.

My favorite example is a homeless man in Harvard Square. His name in my head is "Black Santa" because he's a old man with a full belly and white beard, and he's always surrounded by trash-bag-sacks not of toys, but of his possessions. He's always in the same spot, a stretch of Harvard Square that lots of homeless people hang out in. But while the other, mostly young, homeless in the area typically spend their time begging or zonked out, I only ever see Black Santa writing in a small notebook.

What's he writing all the time? As best I can tell from peeping over his shoulder as I pass by, he's writing poetry. Sometimes I spot him reciting it out loud before he goes back to scribbling. 

Some day I hope to muster the courage to strike up a conversation out of the blue with him and learn more.



... (read more)

Homeless person or professor?


Your homeless person or professor story made me think of my uncle. He lives in his car, by choice. 

He has a computer science degree and worked for a lot of top technology companies in the 80s and 90s. Eventually his disdain for the employee lifestyle inspired him to try his hand at the entrepreneurial route. Turns out he's neither a good employee, nor a good entrepreneur. After a couple bad start-ups, he went broke.  

On two separate occasions during my childhood he stayed with my family in our home (with the precondition that he maintains employment somewhere). It lasted...for a while. But he grew bored. He prefers to live in his car and read books in the library than work "for the man".

I see him once a year on Thanksgiving now. Last year we talked about particle physics and blackholes.

By 'work "for the man"' do you mean collect whatever welfare he can get or that he works as an informant in some way?


When I was ~ 5 I saw a homeless person on the street. I asked my dad where his home was. My dad said "he doesn't have a home". I burst into tears. 

I'm 35 now and reading this post makes me want to burst into tears again. I appreciate you writing it though.


The bathroom thing sucks in general. We honestly just need more public bathrooms, or subsidies paid to venues to keep their bathrooms fully public. I understand most businesses won't risk having to deal with the potential mess of having anyone use their bathroom, but it's ridiculous even for those who do have the money that you're supposed to buy a coffee or something to take a leak (and then in practice you can often sneak by anyway).

I assume that it's harder to have public bathrooms when you have a substantial homeless population. There's a fear that they'll do drugs in there or desecrate the place.

I was briefly part of an organization that tried to solve this problem by having a portable station for homeless people to use the bathroom, take a shower, brush, and change (they were also given inexpensive undergarments + cleaning equipment). While doing that, I never experienced any of the above issues but there was also an establishment of trust because the homeless people and the volunteers would interact regularly. I wonder if this can extrapolate.

In places without a homeless problem, I've never had an issue finding a place to use the bathroom without buying anything. I usually buy something after as a courtesy, but I never promise the storeowner or anything.

ETA: in upscale areas in the East Coast, I often can find public bathrooms, and they're in good shape. I don't travel too much, so I don't have a whole lot of data points.

Why do we need more public bathrooms?  I'm skeptical because if there was demand for more bathrooms, then I'd expect the market to produce them. Why is it ridiculous? edit: There are some problems with this comment.

Why do we need more public bathrooms?  I'm skeptical because if there was demand for more bathrooms, then I'd expect the market to produce them.

The fact that the market demonstrably hasn't provided this good is little (in fact, practically no) evidence regarding its desirability because the topic of discussion is public bathrooms, meaning precisely the types of goods/services that are created, funded, and taken care of by the government as opposed to private entities. 

In particular, these are built on public land (where private developers do not have property rights) for public use (with no excludability) and with little-to-no rivalry, at least across mid-to-long-term timeframes (past the point where another person is physically occupying the bathroom or dirtying it). As such, they fit the frame of public goods to a reasonable extent.

Why is it ridiculous?

I suspect the argument that it is ridiculous comes from an intuition that the need to go to the bathroom is such a human universal that we are all accustomed to, and the knowledge that having to hold in your urine is seriously unpleasant is so universal, that it becomes a matter of basic consideration for your fellow huma... (read more)


In particular, these are built on public land (where private developers do not have property rights) for public use (with no excludability) and with little-to-no rivalry, at least across mid-to-long-term timeframes (past the point where another person is physically occupying the bathroom or dirtying it). As such, they fit the frame of public goods to a reasonable extent.

'Public bathrooms' are definitely not 'public goods', not even close. A mere coincidence of the adjective 'public' meaning 'government run' and 'society-wide' doesn't make them so. The market doesn't provide it because it is outlawed; where it is not outlawed, it is provided; and where outlawed, it is often provided by the market in a different form anyway, like being excluded to only paying patrons of a store or restaurant. They are ordinary excludable private goods; often a club good, where load is low. That is enough disproof of it being a 'public good', but in any case:

  • government-owned land has property rights, and these are allocated, leased, rented, or sold all the time to private parties all the time, and often building and management of facilities in things like parks are outsourced.

    This also applies t

... (read more)
Why does timeframe not matter? If there's a pay-and-display parking lot, with enough spaces for everyone, but only one ticket machine, would you say this is rivalrous because only one person can be using the ticket machine at once? Bathrooms aren't zero rivalrous, but they seem fairly low-rivalrous to me. (There are some people for whom bathroom use is more urgent, making bathrooms more rivalrous, e.g. pregnant people and those with certain disabilities. My understanding is these people sometimes get access to extra bathrooms that the rest of us don't.) (As for dirtiness, all I can say is that the public bathrooms I've used tend to be somewhere between "just fine" and "unpleasant but bearable". I did once have to clean shit from the toilet walls in the cinema where I used to work, but I believe it's literally once in my life I've encountered that. Obviously people will have very different experiences here.) Depends on details. London has some street urinals that afaict pop up at night, they have no locks or even walls, they're nonexcludable. Some are "open to everyone the attendant decides to let in", and some are "open to everyone with a credit card", and these seem just straightforwardly excludable. Other bathrooms can be locked but have no attendant and no means of accepting payment, so they're either "open to everyone" or "closed to everyone", and calling that "excludable" feels like a stretch to me. I suppose you could say that you could install a pay gate so it's "excludable but currently choosing not to exclude people", but then it depends how easy it is to install one of them.
I think there are some disconnects here. I do agree that the mere fact "markets" are not providing some quantity of publicly accessable bathrooms is hardly an argument that we have a good equalibrium quantity -- or even a good nominal/social want quantity. However, my experience in the USA is that the overwhelming (like on the order of 80%) of the bathrooms I've used in public were in fact on private property and privately provided -- be they gas stations, shopping malls/stores, restaurants/cafes and the like. Sometimes I will use ones in a (mostly public?) place such as state tourist stops on interstates or highway reststops or in airports and some subway systems. (Many of those as actually private but clearly a contract out solution with government specifying what the services will be). I also note that in a sizable number of cases the more public solutions are pretty poor, unsanitary and often even dangerous. I do have some agreement with the eye96458 in that it seems a very localized problem for some urban centers and not really a general issue for the USA in general.
Would you provide your reasoning for this?  I'm interested in understanding it.
[This will not be well detailed but hope provides a sense of why I made the claim.] The most obvious one, and perhaps directly revelant here, is the concept of effective demand - in a market setting those without the money to buy goods or services lack any effective demand. I would concede that alone is not sufficient (or necessary) to reject the claim. But it does point to a way markets do fail to allocate resources to arguably valuable ends. But effective demand failures often produce social and governmental incentives to provide the effective demand for those without resources to pay themselves. I think one can see two lines of though pointing towards under provision when considering social/government responses to the presense of ineffective demand. The standard economic market failure of under provision of public goods. The other is the issue of narrow and broad insterest in how government/public funds get spent. It's not clear to me how strong any narrow interest for increasing public toilets are in terms of driving that spending. I don't think the public good -> under provision (outside some expected range of what a proper market equalibrium should produce) is something one just assumes. Would have to look into things more closely. But the same holds for the "we have markets so it's all good" type argument too. As is generally the case, the devil is in the details and not the general propositions.
I want to clarify a few things before trying to respond substantively. I don't have a well-developed understanding of economics and I'm confused about what meaning the term "effective demand" has in this context. Are you using it the same way that Keynes uses it in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money? Or, are you using the term as it is used in this Wikipedia article? Or, maybe instead, can you tell me what is the difference between demand and effective demand? I suspect that you are trying to highlight that destitute people still have preferences even though they do not have any resources to aid in realizing those preferences, but I'm not sure. After doing a bit of reading, it appears to me that one of the required criteria for something to be a public good is for it to be non-excludable.  But aren't bathrooms very excludable?  Just put a lock on the door that will only open after swiping a credit card. Are you pointing out that the homeless have a narrow interest (in the technical economic sense) in the government operating free to use bathrooms?
While I think you can get to my point with either of the links, a lot more is going on in those links that will confuse and complicate the path. The simple point is that without available resources (typically money) to bid for additionaly output one simply has no way to bid resouces away from other production/uses and increase output of X (here public toilets) in a market. In a pure sense public goods only exist in theory. But there are good that seem to behave a lot like the theoretical good. Looking at a situation through the lens of public goods then provides some useful insights. In this case, the idea of public bathrooms is all about making toilets available to anyone in the area who needs one. In other words it really is not about specific bathroom/toilets but toilet services where one will be available to anyone needing it rather than them needing to use the alley or pay for access.  So if some are shitting in the alleys, and they are not doing so even when they could have used a toilet, then seems the view that current market equalibrium might be off. The two points above just point to reasons why it might be off. Note, that doesn't mean it is, it's generally understood that the social equalibrium is not expected to be a 0 (be it polution, or people shitting on the street) solution. We should not assume what is is what should be. Homeless people may have narrow interests but they have no direct political infulence generally; they cannot do lobbying well and don't represent a concentrated voting block (probably cannot vote at all lacking a home address). The general public is not a narrow, well organized group that wants to eliminate shitting in the alley by providing increased levels of toilet services. So in some way the poltical eonomy equalibrium is some shitting in the alley, and the (to me at least) kind of obvious under provision of some public good (which might be public toilets, cleaner streets and healthier envionments)
Taking a step back, let me just grant that people shitting in the streets is good evidence that the current price of using a bathroom is too high for some people who would, all else equal, rather use a bathroom than shit in the streets (So, insofar that my original comment suggested that the cost of using the bathroom was cheap enough that anyone who wanted to shit could afford to use a bathroom, I am retracting it.). And if one's goal is to reduce the amount of shitting in the streets, then reducing the cost of using the bathroom is a good strategy.  And it is possible that the best way to reduce the cost of using the bathroom is to fund bathrooms with tax money. Then I suspect we are just having a straightforward disagreement over: 1. Should the government make using the bathroom cheaper? 2. If so, how? I agree that destitute people are unable to bid resources away from other uses.  And that this is relevant in the case of any good a destitute person may desire (food, bathroom access, XBox games, airline tickets, etc).  I suspect that you believe toilets are a special case where the government should intervene because destitute people will pollute public spaces if they are unable to access toilets.  Is that right? I agree that "making toilets available to anyone in the area who needs one" is a genuine policy objective.  But the policy objective and the related service, toilet access, are not the same thing.  And there is no question of whether or not the policy objective is a pubic good, as that's just a category error.  And toilets are distinctly excludable, so they are not even quasi-public goods. But maybe I'm still misunderstanding you regarding the public goods issue.
If the lens of public goods is not helpful then perhaps look at positive externalities. The two are fairly closely related with regard to the question you're asking about. Tyler Cowan's blurb (scroll down a littel) on Public Goods and Externalities notes how markets will under produce goods with positive external effects. Again, this is a general point. One can bring in additional details to support the claim that the existing outcome is optimal or to support the claim that it is not optimal. But that was the point of my comment. We cannot just start with market outcome and claim success.
You've convinced me that my initial comment was mistaken in another way.  Specifically, if I haven't specified an objective (eg, less than 150 incidents of people shitting in San Francisco streets each year, or, every point in San Francisco is within .25 miles of at least 4 free to use bathrooms), then it is meaningless to suggest that it is currently being satisfied.  So, insofar that I suggested that an objective involving bathrooms was likely being satisfied (specifically I suggested that we don't need more bathrooms, but relative to what objective?) without actually specifying that objective, my comment was meaningless. (Maybe I made this mistake because in my thinking I failed to distinguish between the market equilibrium and objectives.) Thanks for the link.  Is it the case that people not shitting in the street is a positive externality? And when you say "under produce" do you mean relative to the market equilibrium for bathrooms or some objective involving bathrooms?
This, and how completely unrelated specifically the "buy a coffee" thing is. It makes no sense that to satisfy need A I have to do unrelated thing B. The private version of the solution would be bathrooms I can pay to use, and those happen sometimes, but they're not a particularly common business model so I guess maybe the economics don't work out to it being a good use of capital or land.

At least in California, pay-for-use toilets are uncommon in part because they're illegal

Why is it better to pay an explicit bathroom providing business, then to pay a cafe (in the form of buying a cup of coffee)?  It strikes me as a distinction without real difference, but maybe I'm confused. Maybe bathroom services are just one of a cafe's offerings, but for whatever reason aren't explicitly put on the menu.  Similarly, bars sell access to people interested in hooking up, but it's not explicitly on their menu of products.

Why is it better to pay an explicit bathroom providing business, then to pay a cafe (in the form of buying a cup of coffee)? It strikes me as a distinction without real difference, but maybe I'm confused.

Most obviously, so someone can provide just a bathroom, rather than wrapping an entire cafe around it as a pretext to avoid being illegal - a cafe which almost certainly operates only part of the time rather than 24/7/365, one might note, as merely among the many benefits of severing the two. As for another example of the benefits, recall Starbucks's experiences with bathrooms...

'A bathroom' is quite a different thing from 'an entire cafe plus a bathroom'. 'A bathroom' prefab fits into many more places than 'a successful cafe so big it has an attached bathroom for patrons'. Which is probably why there were apparently >50,000 pay bathrooms in the USA before some activists got them outlawed, and you see pay toilets commonly in other countries. (I remember being quite fascinated by a pay toilet in Paris, which had a built-in cleaning cycle, and considering it well worth the euro coin.)

Oh, I didn't know this story. Seems like a prime example of "be careful what economic incentives you're setting up". All that banning paid toilets has done is... less toilets, not more free toilets. Though wonder if now you could run a public toilet merely by plastering it with ads.
First, I want to note some points of agreement. I agree that there are differences between a just bathrooms business and a cafe with bathrooms.  And I agree that having longer hours is a potential benefit of just bathroom businesses.  And I prefer (as I infer that you do as well) that just bathroom businesses not be illegal. Second, in my previous post I was trying to ask about whether or not there were any genuine differences as a user when paying $X for a cup of coffee to a cafe in order to use the bathroom versus paying $X to a just bathroom business to use the bathroom.  (I was responding to @dr_s saying this: "This, and how completely unrelated specifically the "buy a coffee" thing is. It makes no sense that to satisfy need A I have to do unrelated thing B.")  And in an effort to avoid being a weasel, let me clearly state that insofar that just bathroom businesses would remain open 24/7, or have very clean bathrooms, or be cheap, then they would offer benefits to people which are unavailable from cafes. Yes, you are right. Thanks for the relevant historical information.

Second, in my previous post I was trying to ask about whether or not there were any genuine differences as a user when paying $X for a cup of coffee to a cafe in order to use the bathroom versus paying $X to a just bathroom business to use the bathroom. (I was responding to @dr_s saying this: "This, and how completely unrelated specifically the "buy a coffee" thing is. It makes no sense that to satisfy need A I have to do unrelated thing B.")

Even bracketing out all other concerns, I think there is. You don't know what the setup is at any given cafe so you might go to the wrong one or do it wrong, social interactions are awkward, you have to decide what to buy, there is deadweight loss from the $5 of coffee you didn't want (and might not even drink and just throw away), the pay bathroom probably wouldn't've cost $5 (when I paid for that toilet in Paris, it cost a lot less than just about anything I could've bought from a walk-in cafe with a bathroom), you may have to wait in a line for who knows how long (and if you have to go, you have to go!) to wait for your order to be called instead of plunking in a coin and going right in, you might have to ask for the key in many places (which is always a bit humiliating, to make it a stranger's business that you have to go wee or potty), and return the key too... The cafe version of the interaction is many times worse than such a simple trivial task like 'use a restroom' has to be.

Okay, I think you've convinced me that there are important ways in which pay toilets might offer a better service than cafe bathrooms. (I suspect that I was getting myself confused by sort of insisting/thinking "But if everything is exactly the same (, except one of the buildings also sells coffee), then everything is exactly the same!" Which is maybe nearby to some true-ish statements, but gets in the way of thinking about the differences between using a pay toilet and a cafe bathroom.) (Also, I share your view that bathrooms are excludable and therefore not public goods.  And I'm curious as to why @sunwillrise and @jmh believe that they are in fact public goods.)
Economically speaking, if to acquire good A (which I need) I also have to acquire good B (which I don't need and is more expensive), thus paying more than I would pay for good A alone, using up resources and labor I didn't need and that were surely better employed elsewhere, that seems to me like a huge market inefficiency. Imagine this happening with anything else. "I want a USB cable." "Oh we don't sell USB cables on their own, that would be ridiculous. But we do include them as part of the chargers in smartphones, so if you want a USB cable, you can buy a smartphone." Would that make sense?
I had not thought of this until you and gwern pointed it out, so thanks. I agree that this is a good candidate for a way in which buying-a-cup-of-coffee-that-one-doesn't-want-in-order-to-use-the-bathroom as a common activity within a society causes harm (via resource misallocation) to most members of that society. But I do insist that this isn't a way in which the particular act of giving $X to a cafe for a cup of coffee in order to use their bathroom is worse for the particular consumer than giving $X to a just-bathrooms business.  (I'm not sure what the appropriate words are for distinguishing these two different types of concerns, maybe, "on-going & systematic" and "one shot".) (Have you considered just tipping the barista half the amount of the cup of coffee instead of buying the coffee? This would at least save you some $ and you wouldn't be contributing to the resource misallocation problem.  And I realize that just you and I tipping instead of buying is entirely insufficient for solving the resource misallocation problem.)
Tipping the barista is not really sticking to the rules of the business, though. It's bribing the watchman to close an eye, and the watchman must take the bribe (and deem it worthy its risks).
I agree that such a tip is roughly a bribe.  But why is that a problem? Maybe you believe it is a problem because many people are inclined not to accept bribes, and so such a move would frequently not work.
We're discussing whether this is a systemic problem, not whether there are possible individual solutions. We can come up with solutions just fine, in fact most of the times you can just waltz in, go to the bathroom, and no one will notice. But "everyone pays bribes to the barista to go to the bathroom" absolutely makes no sense as a universal rule over "we finally acknowledge this is an issue and thus incorporate it squarely in our ordinary services instead of making up weird and unnecessary work-arounds".
I tried to stipulate that I was not proposing barista tips as a solution to the "on-going and systematic" problem, specifically I said, "And I realize that just you and I tipping instead of buying is entirely insufficient for solving the resource misallocation problem." warning meta: I am genuinely curious (as I don't get much feedback in day to day life), have you found my comments to be unclear and/or disorganized in this thread?  I'd love to improve my writing so would appreciate any critique, thanks.
No, sorry, it's not that I didn't find it clear, but I thought it was kind of an irrelevant aside - it's obviously true (though IMO going to a barista and passing a bill while whispering "you didn't see anything" might not necessarily work that well either), but my original comment was about the absurdity of the lack of systemic solutions, so saying there are individual ones doesn't really address the main claim.
By "original comment" are you referring to "This, and how completely unrelated specifically the "buy a coffee" thing is. It makes no sense that to satisfy need A I have to do unrelated thing B."?  I actually took that as to be about the individual problem, so that may explain some of our failure to get on the same page.  But, looking at the comment again now, the rest of it does seem to me to be more about the systematic problem, "The private version of the solution would be bathrooms I can pay to use, and those happen sometimes, but they're not a particularly common business model so I guess maybe the economics don't work out to it being a good use of capital or land.". This comment of yours on the other hand struck me as being more about the systematic problem. Sorry for any misinterpretation of your comments.
I disagree.  My reasoning is as follows.  I believe that (P1) there is a high correlation between demand for additional bathrooms owned-operated by private businesses (ie, private bathrooms) and demand for additional bathrooms owned-operated by a government (ie, public bathrooms), and that (P2) there is little demand for additional private bathrooms. So, I infer that (C1) there is little demand for additional public bathrooms. Do you then object to (P1), (P2) or my inference? I'm not sure why you are arguing that bathrooms are public goods (or are you arguing that just public bathrooms are public goods?).  Is it because you are implicitly making this argument? * P3: Free markets do not do a good job of supplying public goods. * P4: Bathrooms are public goods. * C2: So, free markets do not do a good job of supplying bathrooms. (Sorry for my awkward usage of the term "good job", my economic knowledge is weak.) Are you describing a heuristic here? Specifically that, if some need is (i) universal among humans, (ii) widely understood and (iii) unpleasant, then often one should immediately act to accommodate anyone who reports that they currently have that need. And taking a step back, I suspect that I made a mistake and should have initially asked "What do you mean by the term 'ridiculous' here?"  As I'm not sure if @dr_s is just reporting that he doesn't like the current situation, or that it makes him laugh, or that it causes harm, or that it could be easily improved, or something else entirely. But thanks for trying to explain the reasoning to me. Interesting.  I do not share the intuition that price gouging ought to be made illegal, so maybe you are on to something.
I completely disagree with (P1). I think (P2) has a somewhat strange framing, particularly given the fact that 'private bathrooms' can refer to either bathrooms in the homes/dwellings of people, which does not really have much to do with the conversation here, or to auxiliary goods in private establishments, in which case they satisfy the demand from the costumers that are there to purchase the main goods being offered (such as coffee or breakfast etc) but not from the revolving cast of people who are not interested in the main goods (but, as a result, in the current system their 'demand' for the bathrooms does not causally impact the creation of such bathrooms). In any case, going from (P1) and (P2) to (C1) does seem locally valid to a reasonable extent. Yes, that is the general heuristic I am describing, perhaps with the following added requirement: (iv) the person reporting they need it appears genuine and doesn't appear to try to exploit you in a bad-faith manner. I would suspect it means he thinks it is bad in such a clear and manifest manner that it is an instance and a signal of general civilizational inadequacy and insanity. Neither do I, although I suppose I implicitly did back before I studied enough economics to change my view on it.
Why do you disagree with (P1)?  Do you explain it here: "in which case they satisfy the demand from the costumers that are there to purchase the main goods being offered (such as coffee or breakfast etc) but not from the revolving cast of people who are not interested in the main goods (but, as a result, in the current system their 'demand' for the bathrooms does not causally impact the creation of such bathrooms)."? And I completely grant that I might be mistaken about (P1).  I haven't spent many cycles investigating this topic. I tried to give a definition of "private bathrooms" in my previous comment, specifically, "... bathrooms owned-operated by private businesses (ie, private bathrooms)...".  But to be more explicit, by "private bathrooms" I mean the auxiliary goods in private business establishments (eg, cafes) and the primary goods offered by just-bathroom businesses. Does that clear up the strangeness? Why is the demand of the people only interested in using the bathroom not being satisfied?  I expect them to buy the cheapest thing and then use the bathroom.  But maybe I'm confused. And why is their demand not causally impacting the creation of such bathrooms? So given that you find the inference to be of good-ish quality and assuming that we can clear up the strangeness with (P2), then does it follow that you would accept (C1) if you became convinced that (P1) was likely true? Okay.  AFAICT I try to avoid using heuristics that call for me to drop whatever I'm doing and act to assist someone else.  I also roughly prefer that other people avoid using such heuristics. But I do understand that if someone were using that heuristic, then they might be outraged or upset that people are being turned away from bathrooms. (I'm also open to the possibility that there are some good heuristics of this type.) Yes, I suspect this is a good guess as to what @dr_s meant.  And thanks for the interesting-to-me link.   Are you done discussing the matter of bathroom
Yes. I believe there is significant (and currently unmet) demand for publicly-accessible bathrooms that do not require the users to purchase some other good or service (such as coffee) that they are not interested in (which a private establishment could, and in many cases does, require). For the reasons mentioned in my paragraph above, I model these as two different types of goods for our discussion. It seems to carve reality at the joints in a meaningful way. This preference, valid as it may be, cannot be met in practice, at least at a large scale (in terms of number of people).  While individualized assessments contain benefits (such as the use of discretion to take into account specific situations that are not taken care of well by rigid and context-independent rules and heuristics), they also impose significant costs on those who engage in them, namely the increased expenditures of time and mental energy needed to analyze situations on their individual merits (as compared to placing them in one of many mental "boxes" that you had already conceptualized and that you know how to dispose of quickly). Humans have a limited amount of fucks to give, so to say, and (en masse) they won't spend them on topics like these, which are less important from a subjective perspective than stuff like familial relationships, boss-to-underling interactions etc. Well, public bathrooms are approximately public goods, for the reasons I mentioned at the beginning (I said only 'approximately' because there is a small level of short-term rivalry involved due to the fact that someone occupying a bathroom stall physically prevents you from going in during the time they are inside and because such users can temporarily damage the structures there in such a way as to prevent future users from accessing the facilities, until the damages are fixed).
Okay.  I don't understand your reasoning.  Are you specifically suggesting that there are people who would pay some $X to use the bathroom, but the cheapest item on the cafe menu is $Y where X < Y, and so those people are unable to access a bathroom?  Otherwise I'm not sure why someone who needed to use the bathroom would be unwilling to spend $ on some unrelated good in order to use the bathroom.   Okay, you may be right to do so, but from my perspective your reasoning is still opaque. I want to be clear that I am specifically opposing the use of heuristics that call for one to immediately render aid to someone else.  I am not opposing the use of all heuristics.  I agree that it would be a mistake for someone to never use heuristics, because as you say, humans have limited time and mental energy. Are we talking past one another here? That seems plausible to me, but I still don't understand why you are pointing out that bathrooms are approximately public goods.  (I speculated as to why in my initial response to you.)
This is part of the dynamic, yes. But it is not the only relevant consideration: often times, people do not reason on the basis of stand-alone monetary considerations, but also in terms of other, more ineffable concepts, such as principles or values. In this specific case, I believe there are a lot of people that would hate the idea of having to pay for something they don't care about (again, like coffee) in order to access the bathroom, independently (and in addition to) the fact that they must part with some of their cash. It would be more of a principled, i.e. deontological, objection of sorts, and would increase their desire to be able to access public bathrooms. Well, I don't see what evidence or reasoning we have to single out "heuristics that call for one to immediately render aid to someone else" as worthy of specialized treatment as compared to just "heuristics" more broadly. Public goods are (broadly speaking) better served through intervention by a central authority such as a government. As such, correctly identifying something as a public good helps explain why the (private) market has not provided a socially optimal quantity of that good.
I'm following up here after doing some reading about public goods. I'm inclined to believe that bathrooms are excludable (because, for example, an entrepreneur can just put a lock on the bathroom that will only open after a credit card swipe/payment) and so are not public goods.  Am I getting this wrong?
I roughly agree.  (Although, values are always involved in decision making, right? Or maybe you believe that value, as in, don't steal, and value, as in, I'd rather spend money on XBox games than a jet ski, are different sorts of things and you just mean the first sort here.) You might be right about this, I'm not sure.  That isn't how I think about the situation so I might be committing a typical mind fallacy.  I'm interested in why you believe that to be the case, but I recognize that it might be quite a bit of work for you to try to nail down an explanation. My intuition is that it's usually neutral to pretty bad to rush off and offer someone else assistance without thinking it over carefully.  I believe this because (i) most people do a bad job of modeling other people, and, (ii) people are generally quite good at helping themselves, (iii) it sometimes triggers a wasteful arms race of people competing to appear to be the most caring, (iv) people straightforwardly pursuing their own interests is a good recipe for improving the world. Okay, I now understand your reasoning, but I will have to think about it more before offering a substantive response.
I wouldn't expect so, why would you think that? Markets have a problem handling unpriced externalities without regulation. (Tragedy of the commons.) Pollution is a notable example of market failure, and the bathrooms issue is a special case of exactly this. Why pay extra to dispose of your waste properly if you can get away with dumping it elsewhere? As a matter of public health, it's better for everyone if this type of waste goes in the sewers and not in the alley, even if the perpetrators can't afford a coffee. How would you propose we stop the pollution? Fining them wouldn't help, even if we could catch them reliably, which would be expensive, because they don't have any money to take. Jailing them would probably cost taxpayers more than maintaining bathrooms would. Taxpayers are already paying for the sewer system (a highly appropriate use of taxation). This is just an expansion of the same.
From your response it seems to me that I've understood your question and position, so I'm responding to it here. epistemic status: I am a public policy and economics amateur.  I do not have extreme cognitive ability and I thought about the question for < 1 hour. I'm going to suggest some other possible ways to stop homeless people from shitting in the streets and then I will nominate my current preferred solution. 1. Remove legal restrictions to running just-bathroom businesses. 2. Reduce the number of homeless people (by, for example, giving them homes and/or letting developers build more homes). 3. Start a charity that operates bathrooms for the homeless. My current preference is a mix of (a) punishing people who shit in the streets with jail time, (b) reducing the number of homeless by facilitating more housing development, (c) and removing legal restrictions on running just-bathroom businesses. AFAICT I prefer my solution to yours because I am wary of the San Francisco Division of Public Bathrooms turning into a permanent boondoggle (I'm generally suspicious of government activity, although I do accept that, for example, the Apollo Program and Manhattan Project are very impressive, and IMO most American police departments do an okay job.) and because I suspect the situation is being heavily influenced by anti-housing-development policies and anti-just-bathroom-businesses policies. If you have a good critique of my solution, please offer it. As I said, I'm a public policy noob.
I explained my reasoning here.  Also note that most people who have demand for using the bathroom are not penniless homeless people. I agree. A self-interested rational agent would just shit in the streets if they could get away with it. I agree. I understand you to be raising the question, "What is the best way to stop homeless people from shitting in the streets?".  And then you've suggested four possible solutions: 1. Government operates more free to use bathrooms. 2. Government pays private businesses to make their bathrooms available to everyone. 3. Government fines people who shit in the streets. 4. Governments jails people who shit in the streets. And you claim that (1) and (2) are the best options. Do I understand you correctly?
Here is my reasoning. On one hand, obviously going to the bathroom, sometimes in random circumstances, is an obvious universal necessity. It is all the more pressing for people with certain conditions that make it harder for them to control themselves for long. So it's important that bathrooms are available, quickly accessible, and distributed reasonably well everywhere. I would also argue it's important that they have no barrier to access because sometimes time is critical when using it. In certain train stations I've seen bathrooms that can only be used by paying a small price, which often meant you needed to have and find precise amounts of change to go. Absolutely impractical stuff for bathrooms. On the other, obviously maintaining bathrooms is expensive as it requires labour. You don't want your bathrooms to be completely fouled on the regular, or worse, damaged, and if they happen to be, you need money to fix them. So bathrooms aren't literally "free". Now one possible solution would be to have "public bathroom" as a business. Nowadays you could allow entrance with a credit card (note that this doesn't solve the homeless thing, but it addresses most people's need). But IMO this isn't a particularly high value business, and on its own certainly not a good use of valuable city centre land, which goes directly against the fact that you need bathrooms to be the most where the most people are. So this never really happens. Another solution is to have bathrooms as part of private businesses doing other stuff (serving food/drinks) and have them charge for their use. Which is how it works now. The inadequacy lies into how for some reason these businesses charge you indirectly by asking you to buy something. This is inefficient in a number of ways: it forces you to buy something you don't really want, paying more than you would otherwise, and the provider probably still doesn't get as much as they could if they just asked a bathroom fee since they also need the labo
Thanks for providing this detailed account of your reasoning.  I understand most of what you are saying, but I'm a little confused about the first two paragraphs. Here I take you to be laying out the problem/goal that the rest of your comment addresses with various candidate solutions.  But what exactly is the goal? 1. Bathrooms are available, quickly accessible, well distributed and with no barrier to access (while taking into account the fact that bathrooms are expensive to maintain). 2. Literally every potential visitor to a given geographical region (regardless of the person's medical, biological or economic idiosyncrasies) has unencumbered access to clean and functioning bathroom facilities. 3. <something else> My confusion is being prompted by the suspicion that different neighborhoods have different optimal bathroom regimes (unless the goal is trying to make every neighborhood accommodate the same set of people (eg, all people, or all Americans, or middle class residents of the city, etc)).  For example: * Neighborhood A is mostly a bunch of expensive boutique clothiers and almost all of their customers are wealthy women.  It turns out (and I might be totally wrong about this specific case) that nearly all wealthy American women do not suffer from conditions that would require them to ever need short notice immediate access to a bathroom (eg, IBS).  But this is not true of the wider American population.  How many bathrooms should be in neighborhood A? * Then suppose that over time neighborhood A shifts from being mostly boutique clothiers to restaurants frequented by middle class tourists.  Now how many bathrooms should be in neighborhood A? So, I'm just looking for clarification on precisely what problem/goal the comment is addressing. And so that my comment isn't just harassing you for clarification, I like the idea of building bathrooms in places that would not crowd out other businesses, but what about re-zoning (maybe "re-zoning" isn't the rig
I think in general it's mostly 1); obviously "infinite perfect bathroom availability everywhere" isn't a realistic goal, so this is about striking a compromise that is however more practical than the current situation. For things like these honestly I am disinclined to trust private enterprise too much - especially if left completely unregulated - but am willing to concede that it's not my main value. Obviously I wouldn't want the sidewalk to be entirely crowded out by competing paid chemical toilets though, that solves one problem but creates another. Since the discussion here started around homelessness, and homeless people obviously wouldn't be able to pay for private bathrooms (especially if these did the obvious thing for convenience and forgo coins in exchange for some kind of subscription service, payment via app, or such), I think the best solution would be free public bathrooms, and I think they would "pay themselves" in terms of gains in comfort and cleanliness for the people living in the neighborhood. They should be funded locally of course. Absent that though, sure, I think removing some barriers to private suppliers of paid for bathroom services would still be better than this.
Then I believe that I understand your previous comment, so I'm going to respond to your proposed solutions. I'm not sure where you live, but as others have pointed out (and as you are aware of), some cities and states (including California according to Wikipedia) ban pay toilets.  If this ban was lifted, then would you expect the public bathroom situation to meaningfully improve? (And I grant that this doesn't address your concerns about people who cannot afford to use paid toilets.) I agree that these are important questions (also, is it illegal for a cafe to charge someone just to use the bathroom? and, have any cafes tried to offer this service?).  Before anyone takes any public policy action I would want them to get to the bottom of these matters. These seem to be plausible hypotheses to me.  Also, cafe entrepreneurs may just not have had the idea to offer a 'Use Bathroom' service.  And insofar that they are interested in making money, that may overcome a desire to not do something weird. I agree that this might be the best solution.  I'm generally skeptical of government services (although many municipalities do IMO an okay-ish job of delivering police, fire and water services) because they are not enmeshed in the market pricing mechanism (ie, they aren't threatened by bankruptcy and they aren't trying to make profit).  But other commenters have argued that bathrooms are public goods and that free markets don't do public goods well, so maybe I'm mistaken. I still haven't thought about their argument. Why can homeless people obviously not pay for private bathrooms?  I've seen homeless people use phones, but maybe most of them don't have phones.  And I've seen homeless people have money (eg, panhandling then buying food), but maybe they don't have enough, or maybe they don't have credit or debit cards. But maybe I'm missing the point and the real question is just, what about the people (regardless of what percentage of the homeless they are) who cannot aff
Just returned to Aus from US. One of the most annoying things while travelling was lack of public bathrooms. I could believe that some restaurants just didn’t have a bathroom. I was surprised at how few bathrooms lighthaven seemed to have. Though didn’t go into any of the sleeping areas. Even a place like Disneyland, or a mall. Here is AUS, if I go to a mall I expect to have bathrooms every ~hundred meters. I expect them to be clearly marked, easy to navigate towards and extremely rarely out of order. I can’t imagine needed to pay to use something like a bathroom. Though I did see cafes charging for cups of water. Charging for that type of thing in public places feels like a mistake to me.

FYI Lighthaven isn't super representative – most of the bathrooms are in private rooms because it was a hotel designed for people being in private rooms, and it's expensive to build more (both because it costs money, and because each bathroom is one fewer breakout room, which we also wanted in many contexts).

There's a saying in Chess, that if you have one weakness, you can probably defend it, but if you have two, you are probably fucked.  I dunno, it's phrased better, but that's the gist.

Most homeless people are only temporarily homeless.  They are the 'one weakness' crowd.  Something has gone wrong, they are on the ropes, but they are straightening it out.  There are times and places I can point to in my life where I could have become a 'one weakness' homeless.

A one weakness homeless has fucked up in a royal way (drugs, hit his girl...), a... (read more)

I've often heard say, among charities people who work with homeless people, that you need as long to get out of the street than you spent living in the street.

I hadn't realized that was the case.  Do you have any good data on this?
It's mostly anecdotal from my experience, I'm afraid.  That is, my conviction went the 'wrong way'.  When I was poor, that's what I saw, then later articles mostly seemed to agree, rather than the data making me believe something and then experience confirming. I looked up noahpinion's 'everything you know about homelessness is wrong' article, which I remember as basically getting stuff right.  There is a citation link for 'the vast majority of homelessness is temporary and the vast majority of homeless people just need housing', but it is broken.  womp womp. The first link on searching 'homelessness is temporary' on google goes to What Are the Four Types of Homelessness? | Comic Relief US , where they don't give a hard number beyond saying that most homelessness is temporary.  We can get it in reverse, though, in that 'chronic homelessness' is described as 17%, which would make non chronic homelessness 83%. Homing in on 'chronic homelessness' seems worthwhile, if that's the terminology we might find more useful stuff that way. State of Homelessness: 2023 Edition - has the hopeful link 'homelessness statistics'.  They cite 421,392 'homeless people' and 127,768 'chronic homeless'. gives us: Chronically Homeless - National Alliance to End Homelessness where they describe chronic homelessness as about 22% of the homeless population. Addressing Chronic Homelessness | The Homeless Hub gives us 2-4% of the homeless being chronically homeless in canada, vs 10% in the US. I tried to google the opposite 'homelessness is permanent', 'homelessness is not temporary', etc, but the verbiage doesn't work that way.  I couldn't find any results for most homeless being forever homeless, but even in a reality where that was true, I'm not sure I would.  

If I were a similar homeless man and needed food, I would have robbed someone.  Yet that doesn't lead me to conclude anything negative about people who don't want to be robbed.


There are a number of rather interesting side threads that have emerged from this post. But I'm not at all sure why. From that perspective I'm not sure how I might rate the overall comments section present here.

I believe the past tense is actually "shat". Much more expressive.

Here's a question I don't know the answer to. If there was a program offering a basic income to homeless people, enough to pay for housing+food+clothes+etc in a cheaper area of the US without having to find work, but to receive the money you have to actually move there and get housed - would most homeless people accept the offer and move? I ask because it seems like such a program could be pretty cheap. Or would most of them prefer to stay in cities even at the cost of being homeless? If so, what would be the main reasons?

My understanding is that most homeless people are 'local' to the area. That is, the majority were already residents of a city before becoming homeless and for a variety of common sense reasons would not want to leave. They know the physical and social geography of their area. They have family or other deep ties.  They know which shelters are open at which times, which areas to avoid, where to get dinner on a Thursday. Where it's relatively safe to sleep outside, etc.

Promising a person that if they move they'll be provided for means they lose whatever social network they have and requires trust that such a promise will be fulfilled and they won't be stranded in a worse situation.

That understanding is based on a handful of evenings volunteering at a local homeless shelter, conversations with a friend who is heavily involved in the non-profit world of homelessness, and a layman's interest in housing policy. 

Yeah, I see. Thinking more about this, they'd be right to mistrust this kind of offer. It feels like the only real solution is the hard one: making sure there's enough low-income housing in cities.
There's some UC San Francisco research to back up this view. California has the nation's biggest homeless population mainly due to unaffordable housing, not migration from elsewhere for a nicer climate.
Relatively healthy people do occasionally become homeless due to misfortune, but they usually don't stay homeless. It could be someone from the lower class living paycheck to paycheck who has a surprise expense they're not insured for and can't make rent. It could be a battered woman and her children escaping domestic abuse. They get services, they get back on their feet, they get housed. Ideally, the social safety nets would work faster and better than they do in practice, but the system basically works out for them. The persistently homeless are a different story. They're often mentally ill and/or addicted to drugs. They don't have the will or capacity to take advantage of the available services. In the past, such people were often institutionalized. These institutions often didn't act in their best interests, but it at least kept them off the streets so they couldn't harass the rest of us. Your proposal probably wouldn't help for them.
Probably depends on the specifics. Access to employment and services is a fair one; if you have a job and significant medical needs (and being homeless tends to give you significant medical needs), then moving to somewhere that doesn't provide them is unhelpful. Similarly, just because you have the money, there needs to be a certain degree of work for a community to support something like a grocery store to spend it at. Moving to Alaska for example is likely to sharply increase what food actually costs if you aren't up to homesteading. And a lot of the 'cheaper parts of the US' (like Alaska) have climate-related challenges to maintaining a safe home, food, etc. Additionally, they might not be on the grid. Their water may be poisoned due to local pollution. Old mines might make the ground unsafe to inhabit. City land may actually be cheaper to establish affordable housing on when you add up all the costs of trying to provide good power, water, sanitation, and ensure the house doesn't just fall into a sinkhole at some point. Not everywhere is inhabitable without work that you might not be able to do. That said, there's people it'd be great for, and 'just give people houses' is a very solid approach. If you think you can pull it off, I'd certainly go for it. Even if it didn't work for everyone, imagine how much help it would be if it worked for even 10% of people, and you're only paying for the ones it does help.

I remember going to a city and seeing someone on the subway loudly threatening nonexistent people. I wasn't scared, I just felt bad that in all likelihood, the world had failed this person through no fault of their own.

The LessWrong Review runs every year to select the posts that have most stood the test of time. This post is not yet eligible for review, but will be at the end of 2025. The top fifty or so posts are featured prominently on the site throughout the year.

Hopefully, the review is better than karma at judging enduring value. If we have accurate prediction markets on the review results, maybe we can have better incentives on LessWrong today. Will this post make the top fifty?

I have no idea what this is about but it seems to me that you are making confidential conversation about Teresa <redacted> public, possibly without her consent. Maybe because she is homeless. Can someone explain to me like I am five why this on lesswrong?


(I see no indication in this story that the conversation was confidential)

Ideally, statements should be at least two of true, necessary/useful, and kind. I agree that this didn't breach confidentiality of some sort, and yet I think that people should generally follow a policy where we don't publicize random non-notable people's names without explicit permission when discussing them in a negative light - and the story might attempt to be sympathetic, but it certainly isn't complementary. 
-5Said Achmiz
9Declan Molony
I see the point all of you are making, thank you. I agree that a last name muddies things--I deleted it from the post.
7the gears to ascension
I think you have somewhat of a point, but. Like. On one hand, it was in public, there's no indication it was meant to be confidential at the time. None of this is anything anyone could use to track her down. It's a humanizing, empathetic story about people having a bad time towards an end of building empathy. But the part where I maybe agree a bit is like, she may or may not have agreed to people sharing her story. My guess is she probably would; but we can't trivially ask her. It might not be too terribly hard for Declan to find her again and get her consent to share it, and my guess is she'd give it eagerly; if it's achievable for him to do that I'd suggest he should. But if he can't, I'd default to share. Maybe not with her full name though.
4Ben Millwood
I suggest you redact the name from this comment, and then OP redacts the name from the post too, keeping everything else. I think there's some rhetorical value in presenting the information like this, but I think the potential downsides outweigh the upsides here.
0Stephen Fowler
I agree that it is certainly morally wrong to post this if that is the persons real full name. It is less bad, but still dubious, to post someones traumatic life story on the internet even under a pseudonym. 
Because you expect that doing so would cause the person harm?   Why is it dubious? Do you expect that it will cause harm to the person?
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