“Closed for the season” read the signs affixed to the outside of Prince Rupert’s only city-run public washrooms.
For more than half of the year, the stalls at Mariners Park and Moose Tot Park can’t be used, closing in October and reopening around May 1.
Communications manager for the city, Veronika Stewart, said in an email “the primary reason for winter closure of these public washrooms is due to the freeze/thaw cycles of this season, which renders the washrooms useless.”
It could be a parent with a child needing the facilities, or it could be someone living on the street. For some, when nature calls, there is literally no where to go.
A public safety issue
Lack of access to bathrooms in Prince Rupert isn’t new. At the Oct. 16 council meeting, Councillor Joy Thorkelson addressed the need for a day area for the city’s homeless residents to gather while they wait for the shelters to reopen at night.
“First of all, it’s a public safety issue,” Thorkelson said at the meeting. “Every human being has the right to go to the bathroom … It’s just not right that some of our population should be treated like that.”
She added that while some stores in town may allow a mother and child to use their bathroom, she doesn’t think everyone would be allowed to use a shop’s private facility.
“I know the mall, I imagine, still has a place to go, but if you have to go to the bathroom and you’re eating a poor diet many times you have problems with diarrhea. When you need to go, you need to go — and you need to go now. So we should try to figure out how to have some public bathrooms in areas around town that are available during the daytime,” she said, pointing out that it’s needed not only for residents, but for tourists as well.
Last winter, with more snow than usual in Prince Rupert, the Fisherman’s Hall opened a meeting room to homeless people to use during the day, so they could stay warm, dry and use the bathroom. During the three weeks it was open to those in need, Thorkelson said that there were no issues.
“They were just so happy to have somewhere dry to stay until 11 o’clock at night,” she said.
Gas stations open their doors
Then, from Nov. 8 to 28, tents were set up outside city hall as a temporary shelter and a plea to help the homeless population. Notably absent from the collection of tents was a washroom facility.
“I couldn’t imagine what they go through if they wake up in the middle of the night and have to go,” Gloria Venn said while tent city was still up. “It would be nice if they did have more access, or if they had more low-income housing that they could afford. Then we wouldn’t have to worry about or deal with all this.”
Venn, who is one of the organizers of the tent city, said she was told that the homeless were welcome to use the washrooms at the Chevron and 7-Eleven gas stations.
The manager of Chevron, Shubham Joshi, recalled when a woman came into the gas station and asked if he would allow the homeless to use the washrooms.
“I told her, ‘Yeah, it’s alright with me,’” Joshi said. “I don’t mind, anybody can come and use our washroom. It doesn’t matter that they are homeless or not, we are all the same. It doesn’t matter if they are a customer or not, they can come in and use it.”
He said that delivery people and taxi drivers also use the washrooms often. At Chevron, the staff clean the facilities every hour and make sure they’re well stocked with toilet paper and supplies.
“It’s a necessity. If you have to go for a pee, I know it’s not a good thing to control. Even if I’m out, I think… I don’t have to go about five kilometres to use it. We should [be able to] use it whenever we want, and easily accessible,” Joshi said, adding that he believes there should be more public washrooms in Prince Rupert.
The 20-day tent city protest outside city hall, known as unity city, resulted in a provincially-funded extreme weather shelter. But the shelter, like others in the city, is only open at night.
Smithers finds a solution
The need for public washrooms was a topic in Smithers for decades, Mayor Taylor Bachrach said. For years, business owners in Smithers complained that people who weren’t customers were using their washrooms. In June 2017, after reviewing a number of alternatives, the city of Smithers installed a Portland Loo.
Made by a company in Portland, Oregon, the stainless steel unit can stay open 24 hours a day, all year round. The exterior is graffiti-proof and a locked janitor’s closet with a cleaning hose is provided inside. The sink is on the outside to reduce wait times, and angled vents provide privacy while allowing police to monitor the single-person facility for any illegal activity. The Loo is also wheelchair accessible.
|The Portland Loo was installed in Smithers in June 2017. (File photo)|
“I think it’s been working out really well. It’s certainly getting a lot of use,” Bachrach said six months after the unit was installed in the heart of the city’s downtown area.
“It is one of the northernmost installations of the Portland Loo,” Bachrach said. Nelson put up a Loo around the same time Smithers received theirs, while Victoria’s stall on Langley Street was voted the best restroom in Canada in 2012 after a nation-wide contest by Cintas’ Canada Ltd, a toiletry supplies company.
So far the Loo’s first winter season in Smithers has been a mild one. Bachrach said they’ll be fine-tuning the winterizing features since current models of the Portland Loo can only withstand temperatures going down to negative 15 degrees Celsius. In Prince Rupert, the average winter temperature doesn’t often dip below freezing.
One of the reasons the station was chosen by Smithers’ city staff was because it didn’t need to be heated since the design already prevents the water and equipment from freezing — ultimately cutting down on long-term costs and maintenance.
The main concern that came from the public, Bachrach said, was how much the Loo cost. The price tag of approximately $135,000 CAD included exchange rates and shipping, but not installation. But Bachrach said city staff explored other options extensively and found the Loo’s features to be the best for long-term use.
“We did the analysis and felt it was worth a try,” Bachrach said.
“I think while the critical feedback has gained a lot of attention … a huge number of people have expressed support,” the mayor of Smithers said. “Over the years what was once controversial becomes commonplace.”