VANCOUVER, B.C. – The ripe stench of human excrement is getting stronger in downtown alleys, curling the stomachs of workers who no longer want to relax by the back door for smoke breaks.
“We’re getting to the point where the need for public toilets is getting serious,” said Charles Gauthier, executive director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association.
“There’s a burgeoning entertainment district, a growing homelessness problem and people have nowhere to go. I’ve been with the association for 15 years and it’s just becoming more and more of an issue for more of our members.”
He’s talking about the smell of urine and feces in back alleys of the central business district and the Downtown Eastside area.
The Vancouver Coastal Health Authority has gotten involved and is calling for action before disease spreads.
“Defecating and urinating in the street is not something that’s healthy for individuals,” said Richard Taki, public health protection officer for the authority.
Besides the possibility of disease transmission, “if people are tracking this bacteria into eating establishments and public facilities we’re running the risk of a problem with rodents and insects carrying bacteria,” he added.
“Salmonella is the obvious threat and for a lot of the homeless people who are immunocompromised, food poisoning is going to be serious.”
He said a solution, likely portable public toilets, is imminent.
“It’s going to be sooner rather than later, it’s something we’re going ahead with.”
City planners met with the business association Wednesday to discuss options.
“There’s a considerable cost involved. In the Downtown Eastside we’re going to need a supervised bank of toilets, and that’s going to cost in excess of $5,000 a month,” said Bob Ross, a city engineer working on the issue.
Open urinals are among the options being considered.
“I’m not sure our culture is ready for that,” Ross said. “It seems to me it’s an undignified and humiliating way of dealing with the problem, but one that also seems to be working in parts of England and Amsterdam.”
There are logistical and financing challenges to cleaning up the alleys.
But the city, the health authority and the business association are all in agreement that something has to be done.
“It’s awful for residents who have to deal with the smell wafting in through their windows and it’s just getting so much worse,” Ross said.
Under discussion for years has been a plan to put self-cleaning, automated public toilets in the downtown area, but there have been concerns the toilets would be used for prostitution and to shoot up drugs.
The city has a contract with a street furniture company to provide six of the units and just has to decide if they would work – and where to put them.
“But now I think we’ve come to a point in Vancouver where we have to act,” Gauthier said. “The public need far outweighs those concerns. These units are going to be automated and will have a time limit on them. And really, people are going shoot drugs wherever they want.”
Vancouver is set to commission a study to map the size of the problem and is considering spending more money on maintaining public toilets in the downtown entertainment and business districts. More funding is needed for permanent public washrooms in the Downtown Eastside slum where thousands of homeless drug users have long used alleys as toilets.
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