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‘It is a human right': $1.1M committed for public washrooms in Downtown Eastside

Public spaces in downtown Vancouver becoming washrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic, as homeless residents 'have no other options'
Photo: City of Vancouver

When you've got to go, you've got to go.

Vancouver residents have spent more time at home to avoid being exposed to the novel coronavirus, which was declared a pandemic-level threat this March.

But for those without a home, avoiding potential carriers of COVID-19 in public and maintaining good hygiene to stave off the virus is proving far from easy.

Vancouver City Councillor Christine Boyle says the lack of public washrooms has long been a problem in the coastal city of 2,095 homeless residents.

“I’m very aware of how many people that are homeless would go to places like the library, public rec centres, or local businesses” to use the washroom, said Boyle.

Now, as a result of the pandemic, the closure of city recreation centres and facilities has led to public spaces – like parks and school grounds – becoming washrooms.

Strathcona resident Dr. Sophie Low-Beer was disappointed after human excrement was found on the premises of her son’s elementary school last week.

“Issues [of homelessness] are here to stay sadly, but as a society, we need to help them the best we can,” Low-Beer told Vancouver Is Awesome.

Boyle said city councillors have received numerous complaints of people using bushes or sidewalks in Yaletown and downtown neighbourhoods “because they have no other option.”

“When we don't have public washrooms, people use other public spaces and we’re paying for the clean up of that anyways,” she added.

City council met on Sept. 15 and 16 to recalibrate the 2021 capital budget in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“Our capital budget line item for [permanent] public washrooms in the Downtown Eastside, totalling $1.1-million, wasn't an item that got cut,” Boyle said, relieved.

The project includes planning and design phases for the renewal of two Hastings Street washrooms in the DTES (at Main and Hamilton streets).

“I still hope that we might increase it more,” she told Vancouver Is Awesome.

In early March, when the pandemic first shuttered public facilities and businesses alike, the City of Vancouver installed porta potties around the DTES.


Last week we installed three temporary washroom trailers in the Downtown Eastside and Kingsway to help provide safe and...

Posted by City of Vancouver - Local Government on Monday, June 1, 2020

Soon after, in May, the municipality then partnered with WISH – a non-profit that assists women in the Downtown Eastside – to install a temporary, 24-hour restroom trailer.

The trailer gave people living on the streets of the DTES a place to wash their hands. Two more like it were added in the DTES area, but neither are open 24 hours a day.

“The trailer option was much faster than more permanent washrooms,” Boyle explained, claiming there’s more that needs to be done.

Transit stations need public washroom facilities, she said, including six new Broadway subway stations planned to provide transit service from East Vancouver to the Arbutus area.

“It's a question of whether we allow for basic dignity and set up facilities that meet the needs people have,” Boyle said.

It was in February when Boyle and councillor Michael Wiebe first motioned for council “to recognize and affirm that access to water and sanitation services are “fundamental human rights.”

The motion passed unanimously.