Public health officials and residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside say the city needs to add more public bathrooms to the area to ensure facilities are available for vulnerable citizens who desperately need them.
And they say the COVID-19 pandemic has only made matters worse.
Jamie Benson, a veteran who served in Haiti and two tours in Afghanistan, has lived in the Downtown Eastside for five years and is homeless.
He told Global News he often has to rely on private businesses for a chance to go to the bathroom — but they’re not always welcoming.
Benson recounted a heartbreaking experience he had about six weeks ago, when he went to five or six businesses who all claimed their bathrooms were out of order, before he saw a woman coming out of a washroom at a prominent grocery store chain.
He asked a staff member for the key — only to be told again that the bathroom was out of order.
“I had an accident after that. I wet my pants. It was clearly visible, people were laughing at me, and I actually broke down and cried,” he said.
“I remember thinking: I’m a veteran, I gave so much to protect your butts, and this is how I’m being treated today? I don’t think anyone should be treated that way. I’m shaking right now.”
Businesses discriminate against people who ask to use the bathroom, based on appearance, Benson said.
“It’s so frustrating,” he said.
“Even before the COVID protocol went into place, you go anywhere that has a public washroom — any kind of restaurant or coffee shop, unless it’s a Tim Hortons or a Starbucks — they’ll pick and choose, it seems, who they let into the washroom based on looks.”
Talia Pootlass, who’s lived in the area on and off for three years, says it’s a struggle to find a facility.
“There’s many nights where I’d be looking for a washroom, and they’d be closed at a certain time. And now buildings, because of COVID, they won’t let you use the washroom. So it’s gotten even harder,” she said.
Pootlass said when you’re desperate, your options are limited — and you have to do what you have to do.
“Go in the streets,” she said. “It’s kind of gross, and inconvenient. But there’s no other choice.”
That act has drawn the ire of neighbourhood associations for people who have stable housing in the downtown core.
But activists and public health officials are calling for a return to compassion in the conversation around homelessness and addiction in Vancouver.
Dr. Brian Conway, medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, said the public needs to remember 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.
“Overnight, they were deprived of lifesaving services. They lost access to food, to showers, to washrooms, to laundry, and to other emergency services that they counted on to survive,” Conway said.
“There were many reports of individuals relieving themselves behind buildings, and it was felt that it was very inappropriate — and that is possibly so, until you realize that they have absolutely no access to proper toilets.”
People have, naturally, been most concerned with how they have been personally affected by the pandemic so far, he added.
“They are so preoccupied with this that they may be losing focus that the most vulnerable among us — those that had no food, no money, no home and no hope — are now even more hopeless than they were before,” he said.
“And they require special and different attention.”
In June, Conway co-authored a paper in medical journal Future Virology on the impacts of COVID-19 on homeless populations in Vancouver. The paper identified access to hygiene facilities as one of the major points of concern for those groups.
“To their credit, public health officials recognized the dilemma and implemented corrective measures. Portable bathroom, shower and laundry facilities were set up, as were hand washing and non-alcohol-based disinfectant stations,” the paper reads.
The City of Vancouver operates 11 automated public toilets and two “comfort stations” underground, along with three temporary washroom trailers opened during the pandemic. Six of them are open 24 hours a day.
But residents of the Downtown Eastside tell Global News there are only two bathrooms easily available in the neighbourhood that they can access.
The Vancouver Park Board operates 97 public bathrooms in parks and beaches across the city, which are sanitized and cleaned twice-daily.
Data from the city showed it has received 480 calls reporting feces to date this year, compared with 871 all of this year. A spokesperson said the city doesn’t track ‘human’ and ‘animal’ feces separately, but said there were 367 calls this year so far including the word ‘human’ in the description, compared with 544 last year.
Jeremy Hunka with the Union Gospel Mission in the Downtown Eastside agreed with Conway that the pandemic has exacerbated problems that were already there, making them more visible to other, less vulnerable, residents.
But that has also shifted the conversation away from empathy and into blame, he argued.
“I have noticed there is almost a furor right now. There’s a furor in Metro Vancouver around homelessness and addiction in Vancouver in particular. It’s mostly in reaction to what people are visibly seeing. Garbage, needles,” Hunka said.
“We are in this position because there wasn’t a public furor (earlier) over the things that were totally devastating but maybe a little less visible. And we didn’t do enough to help.”
Hunka said it’s easy to let the conversation unravel into an “us versus them” situation, but he wants Vancouverites to remember that we’re all on the same side when it comes to wanting the best for the city.
“We need to remember that people’s lives are on the line, they’re valuable people, they have futures, they have hopes, they have dreams,” he said.
“Their terrible situation that they may be in right now doesn’t define them for life.”