British Columbia

Free lockers, public bathrooms and outreach workers: How Prince George, B.C., hopes to tackle poverty

The city of Prince George is trying some new strategies to help people dealing with poverty and homelessness in the community, including providing free storage space and opening public washrooms staffed by outreach workers.

'In a crisis, we have to come together,' says councillor Cori Ramsay

Storage space and bathrooms are being provided for people who are homeless in Prince George's downtown core. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

The city of Prince George is trying some new strategies to help people dealing with poverty and homelessness in the community, including providing free storage space and opening public washrooms staffed by outreach workers.

The first storage and bathroom location opened its doors on Sept. 6, using funds from B.C. Housing and the city, in partnership with the Prince George Native Friendship Centre.

It provides homeless people with a place to store their belongings, and is watched over by two dedicated outreach workers who can connect clients with other housing and support services.

The second location is scheduled to begin operation in November, in partnership with the Association Advocating for Women and Community (AWAC), and will include access to storage, bathrooms, showers and laundry services, as well as dedicated outreach workers.

The Native Friendship Centre project will run for a year and the AWAC project will run for six months while the city collects data and feedback from people who live and work downtown about their effectiveness, said Chris Bone, the associate director of strategic initiatives and partnerships for the city of Prince George.

Opioid crisis making public washrooms a challenge

Speaking to council on Monday, Bone explained the downtown locker and bathroom programs stem from an earlier directive from council to improve bathroom access in the city.

Many downtown businesses have chosen not to grant public access to their facilities because of fear of overdoses and other safety concerns.

And other communities, such as neighbouring Quesnel, have closed some public bathrooms due to the frequent discovery of drug paraphenelia.

Those problems are reduced by having dedicated outreach workers on site, Bone said.

At the Native Friendship Centre location, staff are scheduled Monday through Saturday, between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., though mobile workers are available at all times.

The AWAC location will be open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The city's portion of the pilot programs amounts to $168,000 and will be covered with money budgeted for downtown crime prevention, with the remainder of the money coming from B.C. Housing.

Affordable housing, poverty committee also in the works

Councillor Cori Ramsay said she is proud to see the program rolled out.

"I can't imagine having to carry around everything I own on my back," she told CBC Daybreak North host Carolina de Ryk. 

Ramsay said she's also looking forward to the roll-out of an affordable housing project staffed with support workers proposed for the city's downtown in partnership with B.C. Housing and Northern Health.

This week, Ramsay was appointed to the city's newly-formed select committee on poverty reduction, aimed at coming up with other strategies for helping marginalized people in the community.

An illustration on display at an open house in Prince George explains the difference between a shelter and supportive housing. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC)

Asked how she responds to citizens who are concerned the new services will negatively affect businesses in the downtown, Ramsay said she takes the concerns seriously, but people need to "come together" to tackle problems connected to poverty, addiction and homelessness.

"It's not just our community facing these issues. It's every community across British Columbia, across Canada," she said.

"This is a crisis, and in a crisis we have to come together, we have to hunker down and see what works."

The city of Prince George is tackling issues around poverty with pilot projects for downtown washrooms, free storage lockers and a comprehensive profile of who needs help in the community. 7:50

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About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.