British Columbia

Prince George struggles to find public washroom solution

City council in Prince George is trying to find ways to increase accessibility to public washrooms in the downtown area. There are few options available for people, and many businesses have chosen not to grant public access to their facilities because of fears of overdoses and safety.

The growing opioid crisis has created concerns about how to keep facilities safe

The doors of public washrooms are often locked in downtown Prince George. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

City council in Prince George is trying to find ways to increase accessibility to public washrooms in the downtown area.

There are few options available for people, and many businesses have chosen not to grant public access to their facilities because of fear of overdoses and safety concerns. 

City staff presented a report to council this week, which highlighted there are no perfect solutions and that other cities are also struggling with this issue. 

"This is a really tough topic, and I think if I were able to pull some themes it would be...that providing access to public washrooms for everybody that needs to access them, and ensuring that they are clean and safe, is challenging," said Chris Bone, city manager of social planning.

"My research has shown that no community has figured out how to do this effectively and that some of the communities that were seen to be ahead of the curve are now faced with having to rethink initial solutions because we're working in a very different world now."

After a heated debate, council agreed to try one of city staff's recommendations to provide additional funding to social service providers, such as Saint Vincent de Paul, which already grant public washroom access.

Many of these providers have restricted access to their washrooms in the past because they don't have the resources to monitor them. The funding is intended to offset the cost of having an assigned washroom monitor during peak hours.

Other cities

One of the other options staff proposed, was giving businesses $500 to open their bathrooms. However, this was tried in Yellowknife, and most businesses weren't willing to do it for that amount.

Another option considered was bringing in self-contained stalls — called a Portland Loo — which are difficult to vandalize.

The town of Smithers introduced them two years ago. However, staff received mixed reviews from other cities that had them because of concerns that opioid users would overdose inside.

Cost of opening washroom doors

The Prince George Public Library is one of the few places that offers public washrooms, but it's come at a cost.

In the past, library staff have had to call paramedics because of overdoses, and the security budget has now increased from $55,000 in 2015, to more than $150,000 this year. 

Amy Dhanjal, communications coordinator for the library, said in a recent count, staff found that between 20 to 40 people were using the washroom per hour. 

"We looked at percentages and we saw that about 14 per cent of those people are just coming in to use the washroom and then they're leaving the library," she told Daybreak North's Nicole Oud.

Everyone needs washrooms, says Dhanjal

However, despite challenges the library has faced from opening its washrooms to the public, Dhanjal believes it's important for the city to be accessible. 

"I know often when people think about public washrooms and people are advocating for public washrooms, the conversation sometimes focuses on people who are experiencing homelessness," she said.

"But, there are so many other people that need to use the washroom; people that have Crohn's, people who are menstruating, people that are elderly sometimes need a bathroom right away."

When you gotta go, you gotta go. But in downtown Prince George, it can be hard to find somewhere to do so. Nicole Oud reports. 8:31

With files from Nicole Oud and Daybreak North

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