Arthur Baxter spends most days panhandling throughout the Exchange District. The 54-year-old shuffles between busy intersections, storefronts and Old Market Square asking pedestrians and motorists to help out with a bit of a change or a bite to eat.
But when nature calls, "there are no places to go," Baxter said. "And we need them."
Baxter said there are a few spots around the Exchange where he urinates but he won’t say where. When he needs to defecate, Baxter said he goes in a dumpster.
"I’m kind of a private person, so I don’t sit out here and go up against a wall," he said. "But finding a washroom around here, it’s virtually impossible."
Advocates say Winnipeg’s lack of accessible public washrooms is unacceptable and it’s not a new problem.
In 2010, the city introduced Places to Go, a strategy exploring different solutions to the issue. But the initiative only generated stop-gap solutions like a temporary mobile bathroom during the 2018-19 summer months
Last October, a Winnipeg Downtown BIZ report presented three options to the city’s committee on protection, community services and parks: permanent washrooms, pop-up toilets and a voluntary public-private washroom program. A follow-up report on potential costs wasn’t expected until December 2021.
However, a $670,000 grant from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities could bring relief to residents such as Baxter sooner than expected.
The city received the grant to help support public health concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The money must be used to build one or more public washrooms and needs to be used by February 2021.
The need for public washrooms isn’t just a downtown problem. It extends to adjacent neighbourhoods such as West Broadway, said Greg MacPherson, executive director of the West Broadway Community Organization.
He said it’s frustrating there aren’t any available public washrooms in the community right now.
WBCO is a neighbourhood renewal corporation advocating for the needs of West Broadway residents. This summer, a partnering community service placed a porta-potty outside the Crossways building on Broadway for area residents to use.
"It was a huge success in some ways. The level of use was really significant," MacPherson said. "It’s a pretty strong indicator the need is there."
But MacPherson said the downside of the porta-potty was a lack of security and proper cleaning. The facility was damaged by misuse and eventually removed.
"(Pop-ups) are Band-Aids," MacPherson said. "They may alleviate some of the concerns, but I want to live in a city that prioritizes the provision of water and bathrooms for everybody."
MacPherson said he believes permanent washrooms are the best solution.
"It’s the kind of thing that adds a level of quality of life for residents of our city if we have maintained, accessible and easy to find bathrooms," MacPherson said.
The concept has the support of the city’s business community. "Good for downtown, but even more so for individuals as it provides dignity and respect," said Loren Remillard, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. "Other communities worldwide have embraced the concept."
Kate Fenske, CEO of the Downtown BIZ, said the humanitarian benefits alone are enough, but the benefits extend to business, too.
"Providing an accessible place to go helps us keep the downtown clean and can encourage people to spend more time here and visit local businesses," she said. "It’s also part of fostering an inclusive and welcoming downtown for all."
Building permanent washroom facilities has been successful and cost-effective in other cities.
Portland, Ore., introduced the first Portland Loo in 2008. Twelve years later, the northwestern U.S. city is home to 15 stand-alone washrooms.
The Loo — which is now found across the U.S. and even in Victoria — is touted for its affordability, durable steel design — with an anti-graffiti coating — and 24-hour access. While the lack of heating would render the facility unusable during a Manitoba winter, the BIZ report states, "the possibility of providing a public toilet for the majority of the year is more important than not providing one at all."
Another solution for Winnipeg is a private-public washroom program. In London, England, the city partnered with businesses to form a Community Toilet Scheme. Businesses with city-provided window signage allow public access to washrooms during opening hours.
While public-private washrooms would be the cheapest solution, MacPherson doubts the program would work as intended.
"There’s no guarantee a private organization is going to be able to maintain that level of public service," he said. "And who would control the policies of access?"
While Baxter said he wouldn’t feel uncomfortable using private washrooms as part of a program, he thinks some patrons and staff would be.
"They don’t want characters walking in smelling like a dumpster, you know, and looking worse," Baxter said.
Winnipeg could explore an amalgamation of the three options. In 2019, Minneapolis launched the 100 Restrooms Project, an initiative to provide access and directions to a combination of public, private and pop-up facilities for residents and visitors.
Michael Jack, Winnipeg’s deputy chief administrative officer, said the city has explored all options for the grant money.
Jack said $620,000 of the grant will be used to build permanent facilities but the location, design and cost are still being discussed. In the meantime, he said $50,000 will be used on porta-potties throughout Winnipeg’s core to address the immediate need for washrooms.
Baxter said the city should have figured out a public washroom plan 20 years ago.
"They needed to do this a long time ago and they still do," Baxter said.
Daniel Halmarson is a senior journalism student in the creative communications program at Red River College in Winnipeg. This article was a product of a feature writing assignment.