Vandalism, fires in temporary toilets show need to staff permanent facility in downtown Winnipeg: report

Since being set up in various locations last year, two portable toilets have been set on fire. In one instance, a person who had overdosed and later died was found inside one of the units, a city report says.

Facility under construction on Main Street expected to open in early 2022

An illustration shows the concept for a permanent public washroom under construction on Main Street. It needs to be properly staffed in order to prevent problems like vandalism and theft, a city report says. (Submitted by Wins Bridgman)

Problems with vandalism and theft involving temporary public toilets in Winnipeg's downtown show the need for proper staffing once a new permanent facility opens next year, a city report says.

Since being set up in various locations last year, two portable toilets have been set on fire. In another instance, a person who had overdosed was found unresponsive inside one of the units and later died.

The toilets "were subject to vandalism, structural damage, fire, and the theft of internal components including, but not limited to, toilet paper holders, the urinals, and exhaust piping," the report said.

The temporary toilets were set up in six locations as a test ahead of a new permanent facility, which is currently under construction on Main Street near Thunderbird House. 

Community groups who sponsored the project reported vandalism of their buildings, complaints from neighbouring businesses and residents, and some instances of verbal threats from people using or near the washrooms.

The company hired to clean and maintain the washrooms also reported "challenging working conditions including verbal threats, the presence of sharps, and extreme odious conditions of the units themselves," the report said.

Properly staffing the permanent washroom around the clock with two people and connections to social service programming would cost the city $457,240, while a 12-hour model would cost $255,760, the report says.

The city's preliminary 2022 budget has earmarked $290,000 to the operation of the public washroom.

Advocates for unsheltered people in Winnipeg have long called for public washrooms as a means to provide comfort and dignity to vulnerable people and to improve the sanitation of downtown streets.

A pop-up toilet project was launched in 2018 by the Downtown BIZ and designed by architect Wins Bridgman. (Jacqueline Young, Stationpoint Photographic/BridgemanCollaborative Architecture)

In 2018, the Downtown BIZ launched a pop-up toilet project designed by architect Wins Bridgman, who also designed the city's permanent washroom.

Features of the new construction, such as exterior walls that can be raised during warmer seasons, will help prevent some of the problems encountered with the temporary toilets, Bridgman said in an interview with CBC.

Most importantly, however, he says the washroom needs to have staff to monitor it and help keep people safe.

"The report clearly shows to all of us that a washroom, if it is unsupervised, is a place where things can happen that are deleterious to the people who are using the washroom and to the community around them," he said.

Another illustration of the concept for the permanent washroom. Features like walls that can be raised in warmer months will help prevent problems with the public washroom, says Bridgman. (Submitted by Wins Bridgman)

Many of the problems with the temporary washrooms stem from other issues in the community, said Coun. Sherri Rollins, who chairs the city's protection and community services committee. That includes a lack of housing, addictions services and mental health care.

"We have to keep talking about the human health perspective … when it relates to the staffing model for this, and as it relates to keeping going with public sanitation," she said in an interview.

Of the six portable toilets that were part of the pilot, one was moved and another was removed altogether to reduce the costs of maintenance.

Toilets remain in four locations: 75 Martha St., which has three units, 185 Young St., 473 Selkirk Ave. and 222 Furby St.

Rollins expects them to remain in place after the permanent facility opens early next year.

Offering a washroom for people is about more than just giving them a place to go, said Bridgman.

"The project is a success as soon as people are served to be able to clean themselves .. to be able to reach out to other social services. That level of dignity immediately makes it a success."


Cameron MacLean is a journalist for CBC Manitoba living in Winnipeg, where he was born and raised. He has more than a decade of experience reporting in the city and across Manitoba, covering a wide range of topics, including courts, politics, housing, arts, health and breaking news. Email story tips to