Are there enough washrooms in Nelson for people with no home, or who spend much of their time on the street?
The Nelson Star asked this question to a group of such men at the corner of Baker and Hall Streets, where they often hang out. They unanimously declared that there are not enough washrooms, especially during the pandemic.
“This is an international problem,” said Ritchie Dmyterko, a regular on the corner. “The restaurants are open, but you can’t use the washroom.”
He pointed out the slogan on the door of the public washroom at the intersection: “A unique solution to a universal problem.”
The universal aspect of this problem has been reported widely in international media: disabled people, people without homes, pregnant women, children and elderly people are all affected by the lack of public washrooms, and not just during the pandemic, which has made a bad situation worse.
Dmyterko said the presence of the washroom is one of the reasons he and others hang out on that intersection.
“It’s hard to find a place to wash our hands,” one of his friends said. “We touch door handles too, so if we aren’t clean the rest of the city isn’t either.”
In addition to the washroom at Hall and Baker, known to some as the Port A Loo (its brand name), there are public washrooms at Lakeside Park and a new standalone washroom at the foot of Hall Street near the Prestige Lakeside Resort. But these are closed after hours and only one of them is downtown.
The washroom at city hall has been permanently closed during the pandemic, despite the province’s declaration that public washrooms are an essential service.
The City of Nelson is the owner of the Port a Loo, and public works director Colin Innes says city crews thoroughly clean it twice every day.
A new public washroom is part of city’s plans for a transit hub on the 300 block Victoria Street, and is one of the main reasons for resistance to the plan by a number of businesses on or near that block. They are worried that it would become a hangout for street people as the one at Baker and Hall has.
Nelson Street Outreach worker Ryall Giuliano said the pandemic has created real problems for people on the street because restaurant washrooms have been unavailable or closed.
“You used to able to just go buy your coffee, use the washroom, carry on. Now it’s just the Port a Loo if you’re walking in the downtown.”
Giuliano doesn’t blame restaurants for restricting their washrooms during the pandemic because he knows they have faced many business challenges.
“But I’m all about increasing access to public bathrooms,” Giuliano says. “I think that it just makes a happier, healthier community.”
He says for a person who is homeless and needs to get washed or changed, the Port a Loo is the best and perhaps only place because it is both private and public enough. It’s public because an occupant’s feet can be seen through spaces in the bottom of the structure.
“It’s not like people are going to camp out in there. Having spaces for people to be able to do those things, there’s a lot more dignity in it.”
Giuliano says the conversation should not be about whether or not there should be public washrooms.
“If there’s lots of people hanging out around it, and those people are struggling, we need to figure out how to help them or how to communicate with them.”
Businesses weigh in
Jesse Pineiro, owner of the Nelson Boxing Gym at the corner of Baker and Hall, adjacent to the Port a Loo, agrees, and says many people use the washroom other than those who hang out there.
“They do not affect my business negatively at all. My wife and my eight-year-old kid are on a first name basis with most of them. They never bother anybody. They just sit there.”
Agreeing that there are pedestrians who avoid that corner, Pineiro says, “I think people are really freaked out by the sight of poverty and addiction. It’s uncomfortable to look at.”
Pineiro says he likes having the washroom there because fewer people ask to use his gym’s washroom.
The Nelson Star asked Ross MacNamara, owner of Gerick Cycle and Ski, located on the same intersection, if the city should build more public washrooms.
“Yeah, absolutely. Firmly, yes.”
He says the city needs more because “the homeless people kidnapped the one on the corner by my store, and none of the tourists or the public will ever use it while they’re anywhere within the vicinity.”
He says their presence affects his business negatively.
“People that are timid, or somewhat unused to those kinds of people will … walk a whole block out of their way, and avoid places where they’re lingering. They leave needles and garbage and human excrement at the edge of my building. “
Cait Cormie, co-owner of Sidewinders Coffee, said the opening of the public washroom took the pressure off her washroom, with fewer people asking to use it, and she says it has not affected her business.
“So now that we don’t have a washroom available, we’ll say, well, there is a public one across the road, but most people sort of decline using it. I’ve seen a lot of stuff go down across the street. But yeah, I still appreciated having it there.”
Cormie said she thinks there should be more public washrooms downtown.
“Obviously, you need public restrooms downtown, especially in busy tourist time. I just don’t think it should fall completely on businesses to provide them.”
She has mixed feelings about the scene across the street, and says it’s not black and white.
“We’re all humans,” she says, “and everybody has a story.”
Vince DeVito, owner of Devito Shoes on Hall Street, also wants to see more public washrooms.
“The Port a Loo is a good thing and we should definitely have more of them in Nelson. I have been to many European cities and (washrooms like this) are very common.”
As for the social scene outside the Port a Loo, DeVito calls it “intimidating” for his customers.
He says he does not lose business because after 41 years in business he is a destination store and people will find him by taking a different route.
Warming centre gave winter shelter and services
Giuliano says the warming centre, located near the Civic Centre, which ran for about six months over the winter, helped a lot with access to bathrooms and hygiene.
A COVID-safe space in which people were masked and distanced, with screenings at the door, the centre provided clothing, hygiene supplies, washrooms, food, laundry on certain days, showers on some days, and visits by a public health nurse. In the coldest parts of the winter, emergency beds were provided.
Giuliano said the centre is set to re-open, on a date not yet decided. And he said motel housing was found for the winter for people living on the street or at risk of homelessness, and that is still up and running.
“What’s really interesting about it is that the basic needs of what people needed to live to get out of poverty, to get off the streets, have not changed. The only thing that changed is that all of a sudden we were in a pandemic.”
He said pandemic funding provided through various levels of government has made new services possible, such as the warming centre and motel accommodation.
“We’ve managed to create a lot of new services that ideally we would have done a long time ago. We knew they were good approaches – harm reduction, housing, a drop-in space.”
Dave Sprague, who runs the food bank at the Salvation Army, agrees, and he also thinks more public washrooms are needed.
“I’m a recovering streeter myself, so I know what it’s like to be in that situation,” he says.
“A lot of people just really look down on people that are in that situation, and all it takes is one pay cheque and they could be in the same boat. Instead of throwing bricks at them, throw flowers.”
One of the men at the corner of Baker and Hall, who declined to give his name, said more housing is needed. He said he is couch surfing and not far from being homeless, and he’s on the corner because it gives him a sense of community.
“We watch over each other here. We create a community. I feel free when I am sitting here with my friends.”