The manager of a busy Vancouver coffee shop says his staff are bearing the brunt of the city’s social problems because the business has one of the few publicly-accessible washrooms in the area.
Julian Bentley manages the JJ Bean cafe at Main Street and 14th Avenue.
He says cafe staff, many of whom are quite young, have been forced to deal with people who have passed out, discarded needles, blood, mental health episodes, human waste and regular verbal abuse.
“We’re being outsourced to solve these problems that are real issues in society, that quite frankly I’m not qualified to deal with and neither are my staff,” he said.
“We’re starting to be expected to be first responders, social workers, crisis managers, in addition to our conventional job which is actually just making coffee.”
Bentley has tried to take his concerns to both Vancouver police and the city, but said neither has been responsive to the ongoing concerns.
“I’ve reported to the police multiple, multiple times. They don’t do anything, they tell me to talk to the city. I talk to the city, they tell me to talk to the police,” he said.
“I feel pretty helpless. There’s nothing I can do.”
The lack of accessible public washrooms is not a new issue in Vancouver.
The City of Vancouver operates 11 automated public toilets and two “comfort stations” underground, along with three temporary washroom trailers opened during the pandemic.
The Vancouver Park Board operates 97 public bathrooms in parks and beaches across the city.
Advocates for the homeless say the issue has only gotten worse amid COVID-19, with reduced access to some facilities, and that people seeking to use facilities in businesses frequently face discrimination.
On Wednesday, the City of Vancouver said it was listening to concerns on the issue.
“We are committed to expanding washroom access and are currently finalizing details of new initiatives that will provide immediate action on this issue,” the city said in a statement.
“This work includes the installation of two new multi-stall washroom trailers and extended hours at a number of city facilities.”
Vancouver police said they were also listening to the cafe’s concerns. Spokesperson Sgt. Steve Addison said police would be boosting patrols in the Main Street corridor.
But he added that the problems JJ Bean are facing are beyond simple police response.
“They’re rightfully frustrated, and I would be ticked off as well,” he said.
“There is a myriad of issues related to this, and those issues range from homelessness to mental health to poverty to drug addiction, and those are issues that extend beyond the purview of the VPD.”
JJ Bean owner John Neate said the end result is that major public problems are being left for businesses like his and their employees to deal with.
He said he’d like to see more in the way of drug treatment and mental health supports — possibly even mandatory programs — for people in the most severe crisis.
“What about society, who protects my staff?” he asked.
“Even to do this interview we come across as not compassionate. I am compassionate … but my staff should not be threatened.”