Skip to main content

'Everybody deserves their dignity': 2 Downtown Eastside washrooms at risk of losing funding

Share

Melanie Pratt has worked as a bathroom attendant in the heart of the Downtown Eastside for four and a half years. She ensures the public washroom at Pigeon Park remains clean, and also provides life-saving care in the event of a toxic drug overdose.

“Everybody deserves their dignity,” she said. “The bathrooms are part of it, but what it comes down to is someone’s life is much more important.”

Pratt would like to continue her work, but two washrooms in the neighbourhood – one located at Pigeon Park and the other at 144 East Hastings St. – risk closing due to their funding running out in less than two weeks.

“Somebody asked me the other day – what’s your biggest fear of losing this contract?,” she said. “The people not getting what they need.”

'It's a basic service'

Pratt said hundreds of people use the facilities in a neighbourhood where public washrooms are few and far between. According to a City of Vancouver staff report published in October 2023, there are more than a dozen public washrooms within the Downtown Eastside. However, the report states, “the number of public washrooms has not kept pace with growing housed and unhoused populations.”

Artist Jamie Hardy, also known as Smokey Devil, said there’s a lack of washrooms for community members.

“It’s a basic service for people that’s needed,” he said. “There’s nowhere else for people to go.”

During the pandemic, the City of Vancouver installed temporary washroom facilities in the community. According to the city, it has sought funding from senior governments to extend the funding, but that funding has not yet been secured.

The city said it recognizes the importance of these services, and that it costs $34,000 monthly to operate the toilet at 144 East Hastings. The automated public toilet at Pigeon Park costs $27,000 per month.

“I understand it’s expensive,” Pratt said. “But when they do that and they pull the funding, it’s saying nobody down here’s worth it.”

Concerns over disease

Sarah Blyth, the executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society, said she worries that if the washrooms are removed, it could lead to the spread of infectious diseases in the community.

“Having outbreaks and people going to the washroom in the street is disgusting and is unacceptable, and it’s not a world class city,” she said.

Dr. Victor Leung, an infectious diseases physician and microbiologist, said water, sanitation and hygiene facilities are fundamental.

“Without that basic requirement, particularly in people who are underhoused or people experiencing homelessness, that will increase their chances significantly of both getting infectious diarrhea and also spreading it,” he said.

Leung said in 2021, the Downtown Eastside experienced an outbreak of dysentery caused by the shigella bacteria. He said measures to control the outbreak included non-pharmaceutical approaches such as hygiene stations and washrooms.

“It was a slow process but eventually when it was there, it helped,” he said.

Leung added it increases costs to the health-care system when these public services aren’t preserved or maintained.

“The solution to a problem when you don’t have basic hygiene is not to take away what we already have, it’s to find new innovations or implement modernized approaches,” he said.

In a statement to CTV News, the Ministry of Housing said it recently received a request from the city to fund public washrooms in the Downtown Eastside, and is currently reviewing that request.

CTVNews.ca Top Stories

Here are the signs you're ready to downsize your home

Amid the cost-of-living crisis, many Canadians are looking to find ways to save money, such as downsizing their home. But one Ottawa broker says there are several signs to consider before making the big decision.

Stay Connected