We have a culture that makes excuses about the fact we don’t require a public basic service for a basic human need. Instead of providing public washrooms it has defaulted to businesses, restaurants and department stores to provide public washroom facilities.
It was Stanley Woodvine, The Georgia Straight writer who wrote on his twitter account how dire the Covid pandemic was on the homeless throughout the city. Without libraries and community centres open to use washroom facilities, and with park washrooms closed, there are no options. Mr. Woodvine recalled what happened in San Diego between 2016 and 2018 when a Hepatitis A outbreak occurred. The outbreak was directly linked to the lack of public washroom and hand washing facilities, and sadly San Diego had been told by two grand juries investigating municipal government to install more washrooms downtown. The reason San Diego did not do it? Financial.
But with 444 cases of hepatitis and the unwanted international attention, the city installed new washrooms and initiated more street cleaning, bringing downtown San Diego’s public washroom total to 21. No matter what the cost, ensuring every citizen has access to a washroom is basic human dignity, and a tenet of public health.
Back to Vancouver. It should not take Dr. Brian Conway, the director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre to remind people that the pandemic “took away some of the most important resources for vulnerable Vancouverites, causing the situation in the inner city — and especially in areas like the Downtown Eastside — to deteriorate quickly.”
It is a human right to have access to washrooms. When the City of Vancouver signed a street furniture and advertising deal with Decaux in 2002 one of the things that was going to be provided was public washrooms. Only two have been installed in the downtown area, and these by their design and doors are considered inappropriate for many street people to use. You are only allowed twelve minutes in these toilets before the doors open, a period of time that is difficult for elderly or the infirm.
Journalist Christopher Cheung in this excellent article fittingly called “Real Cities Give their People Places to Pee” writes that 33 percent of the homeless population have a physical disability and 82 percent have one health condition. Supplying toilets with time limits on usage is not acceptable.
It has taken the Covid pandemic to show the heavy lifting that private businesses have been doing in providing washrooms. Surely we can do better.
Three years ago I wrote about Vancouver’s Seniors Advisory Committee pushing TransLink to install accessible public washrooms in all new stations, and in the Millennium Line Broadway Extension. Oddly enough the renovated SkyTrain stations on the Expo line have space and are prepped with plumbing for washrooms. TransLink identifies issues that will include the cost of maintenance, security, and sanitation, and there’s still no word on public washrooms.
But if Edmonton, Toronto and Paris can provide washroom facilities at some stations, surely Vancouver can. And that includes in the downtown.
At Christmas time 2018 TransLink announced they were looking at public washrooms, and free internet too. There was an exciting moment in 2019 when two mascots with the predictable names of “Pee and Poo” were being paraded at downtown rapid transit stops, but it turned out to be a campaign on flushables, not providing the much needed public washrooms.
Writer Christopher Cheung references Clara Greed’s work which has three requirements for public washroom needs: “maintenance, regularly performed and checked by hired staff; education, of the facility operators, maintenance crew and the public; and hardware design, to ensure that the washroom is accessible and adequate for the full range of users.”
I have written about the Portland loo, which was developed in Portland Oregon in 2008 and has been adapted and is in use in Victoria and other cities that needed public washrooms. The designs exist, and they have been tested, and Portland is proud of it. It works.
It truly is time to stop talking about public washrooms downtown and simply provide them.
They do not need to be complex or complicated, but they do need to be present, and they should be staffed and cleaned for all citizens.
This is more than public health. This is human dignity for everyone.