Pop-up toilet returns to Winnipeg streets, offers dignity and safety

Winnipeg's popular pop-up potty, which debuted in 2018 and was flush with success, has officially reopened to the public.

Facility will be open to the public every day from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m

Winnipeg's pop-up public toilet opened for the season on Monday at the corner of Main Street and Henry Avenue. (CBC)

Winnipeg's popular pop-up potty, which debuted in 2018 and was flush with success, has officially reopened to the public.

The bright orange facility, fabricated from a former shipping container, immediately became a topic of conversation and light-hearted jokes when it was unveiled last year and shuffled to four different locations downtown.

This year, in addition to offering people a place to go, it is offering a place for help.

It serves a serious purpose that can help the city's most marginalized people restore some self-respect, said Rick Lees, executive director of Main Street Project, whose group is operating the facility this year at the corner of Main Street and Henry Avenue.

"Dignity is a critical piece of the recovery journey for people. It doesn't really matter how low we sink, we all try to hang on and clamour to keep a piece of dignity," he said.

The pop-up potty is also about creating a safe space, hygiene and keeping the community clean, particularly clean of drug paraphernalia, Lees said.

"I think people find it hard to believe that in a city as wealthy as ours and in our society, you know, people still don't have access to some of the basic things, but it is a reality."

The temporary toilet will be open seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., until the weather turns too cold. (CBC)

The facility, which contains two toilets and a kiosk where staff work, was designed by BridgmanCollaborative Architecture and funded by the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.

Last year, the BIZ partnered with Siloam Mission, which staffed the kiosk, cleaned the toilets and answered questions from a steady stream of users. They also sold reusable water bottles, lunch bags, T-shirts and other items, with the proceeds going to support Siloam's programs.

This year, staffing issues caused a delay in getting the facility opened, until the BIZ turned to Main Street, a shelter that offers programs and services such as crisis support and transitional housing.

Rather than T-shirts and water bottles, staff in the kiosk this year will be offering a needle exchange, distributing condoms and helping direct people to any services they need for food, clothing or counselling.

"We want to use it as a harm-reduction site," Lees said.

"The exchange of dirty needles can spread HIV, Hepatitis A, B, and C and a host of other blood-borne infections, so giving out clean needles can help keep people safer."

Manitoba currently has a syphilis epidemic, so using the pop-up site to distribute free condoms also works to battle that, he said.

The pop-up toilet has an acrylic surround that slides up when the facility is open, and down when it is closed. (Jacqueline Young, Stationpoint Photographic/BridgemanCollaborative Architecture)
The acrylic surround comes down when the facility is closed, blocking the doors and kiosk. (Jacqueline Young, Stationpoint Photographic/BridgemanCollaborative Architecture)

Staff, who will be in the kiosk seven days a week from from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., also will engage with potential Main Street clients and direct them to the agency's food bank and other services, Lees said.

Rather than be moved around in this shortened season, the toilet container will remain at Main and Henry, adjacent to Thunderbird House, where Lees said the greatest demand exists for the services it can offer.

"This is the neighbourhood for people, where they come to get services," he said.

Within a short walk of both Main Street Project and Thunderbird House are Siloam Mission and the Salvation Army.

"This is where they meet their friends. It's a gathering spot and all people find gathering spots. That's why we have little villages like Corydon and Osborne and The Forks," Lees said.

"Even people living with poverty and homelessness have gathering points, and this is one of them."

Bigger issue

The pop-up toilet, while serving an immediate need for the homeless population, also brings attention to a wider issue within Winnipeg.

The city's last public washrooms were closed in summer 2006, when a small building in Memorial Park, across from the legislature, was torn down after three decades.

While most major cities have public facilities, Winnipeg has none.

The 2018 pop-up was a pilot project to fill that need, and it turned out to be more urgent than expected, said Melanie Andrushko of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ — the facility was used more than 2,000 times. 

"There are mothers out there that might be pregnant, there's children, there's elderly, there's people with chronic illnesses that all need the access to public toilets," she said.

"A lot of people take for granted that you can run into anywhere and just be welcome to use our toilet, [but] there's a lot of businesses that aren't necessarily open to everyone, so we're trying to provide a service that everyone can use."

The BIZ has had that conversation with the city for years but it hasn't been easy to find a solution. It requires money, staff and maintenance, Andrushko said.

"We're just trying to bring it up again. We're realizing that we can't just sort of sweep this under the rug and pretend that it isn't an important issue, because it really is."

The pop-up toilet will remain open until the weather becomes too frigid, Andrushko said.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.