Kitchener encampment residents to have 24/7 washroom access: Council supports

Waterloo regional councillors have approved a motion that would see the region cover the security and cleaning costs of keeping downtown washrooms open 24/7 to encampment residents.

Region agrees to cover security, cleaning costs of keeping nearby washroom open

The region has agreed to support the costs behind keeping a downtown washroom open for encampment residents to use 24/7 (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

People living at a growing homeless encampment in downtown Kitchener don't have a washroom on site and have faced challenges finding one elsewhere around the clock.

Mark Ashley said he and others usually seek out public washrooms, which aren't always available, so they "find a corner."

"We do what we have to, but it's not right," he told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

The encampment at 100 Victoria Street North, a vacant lot on Region of Waterloo property, has doubled in the last month with more than 30 tents.

"The options we have really more or less make us go back to caveman days," said Jordan Aylott, standing nearby a white bucket labelled for washroom use.

But, after a push from local advocates and impacted residents, the region has agreed to cover the costs of keeping nearby washroom and hygiene facilities open 24/7 for people to use.

Mark Ashley set up a tent at the regional lot at Victoria and Weber Streets in Kitchener in the new year. (Joe Pavia/CBC)

'Basic human right'

In a regional council meeting on Wednesday, councillors unanimously approved a motion directing staff to partner with The Working Centre to facilitate 24/7 access to the washrooms and hygiene facilities located in the St. John's Kitchen, which is across the street from the encampment. It'll be available for anyone experiencing homelessness in downtown Kitchener. 

The region plans to cover the cost of two security guards working 12-hour shifts, cleaning and incidentals, which are at $34,000 per month.

"I applaud you for taking the time to make this a priority because it's a priority for people living out on the streets," said Julie Sawatzky, founder of 519 Community Collective, adding that having access to a washroom is a "basic human right."

Staff have also been directed to seek provincial funding for mental health and addictions, housing support and federal funding for new affordable and supporting housing projects.

Ryan Pettipiere, the region's director of housing services, said the motion is all about balancing immediate needs while working toward long-term housing solutions.

"Balancing the need of managing immediate but sustainable solutions with efforts to address the root causes and implement permanent solutions through a housing first lens," he said. Pettipiere said officials have been discussing the topic of access to washrooms for a while.

Regional coun. Kathryn McGarry, who is also the mayor of Cambridge, said tackling homelessness in the region can sometimes be complex and requires support from all levels of government.

"This is a growing problem … This is something we need to hammer on the provincial and federal government's about," she said. "This is something that should be front and centre during this upcoming provincial election and all candidates need to be questioned about it."

Late last year, the region approved a policy about the way it responds to encampments. The policy stresses that outreach and service delivery come first and enforcement is a last resort.

Staff have been working with community partners to create an encampment risk assessment as part of the policy. This assessment will help determine next steps that could include, clean up of a vacated site, helping connect residents with housing and supports, garbage removal in active site or enforcement. 

Future of encampment uncertain

It's unclear how long people living at the downtown Kitchener encampment will be able to stay there.

The region has plans to build a new transit hub that stretches between King and Waterloo Streets, and the land at 100 Victoria Street, where the encampment is currently, will be used to manage the development of the station over the next few years, a regional official confirmed with CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

The region said it doesn't have a firm timeline as to when construction will begin, but some work could begin as early as this fall.

Two business owners whose storefronts are located nearby the encampment said they hope to see the site disbanded much sooner.

The owner of Big Bliss says her store has been broken into and front door has been shattered. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Jessica Harrison, founder of The Cake Box, said people who she believes live at the encampment will often loiter outside her business, and sometimes even wander inside and into employee areas. She said this has left employees feeling unsafe.

"The encampment isn't safe, not only for my staff, but customers and residents of the camp site," she said.

Harrison said foot traffic has decreased since the site popped up and any hope to expand the business in the summer has faded. "We're feeling a little discouraged," she added.

Jade Billo, owner of Big Bliss, said her business was recently broken into and the door was shattered by a rock in a separate incident.

"I don't think we can wait till the fall for the encampment to go. I think we need to address it immediately," she said.

Meanwhile, Calli Williams, who lives at the encampment, fears the day he'll be asked to leave.

"It's wrong … this is all we have," he said.

There are about 135 people living in at least 25 known encampments across Waterloo region, according to enforcement and outreach staff. Two known encampments are on regionally owned property.