For the past three weeks, Ryan Slawson had to urinate and defecate in public because the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has led to a dearth of open public restrooms.
Slawson is one of about 235,000 people experiencing homelessness in Canada in a given year, and he has had to relieve himself in back alleys, behind buildings, crouched behind shrubbery, and even along sidewalks, his sister told VICE.
“He’s going whenever he has to go, wherever he is,” Darlene Rosa said of her brother.
Since mid-March, as part of an ongoing battle against COVID-19, every province and territory in Canada has called either a state of emergency or a public health emergency. The emergency orders give regional governments the power to introduce temporary measures quickly, like closing public places—libraries, dine-in restaurants, public parks—that often provide people experiencing housing insecurity with much-needed refuge.
They have also resulted in a hidden consequence: people struggling with homelessness can’t access public washrooms.
Rosa said that because homeless shelters are overcrowded, her brother hasn’t gone to one in at least three weeks, in part because he’s scared of contracting the virus.
The situation is “inhumane,” Rosa said.
On the subreddit r/homeless, a number of posts highlight washroom-related concerns.
“Where am I supposed to go?” asked Reddit user UnknowingWisdom. “All the parks have washrooms but they are all locked.”
In a statement to VICE, the City of Hamilton, where Rosa’s brother resides, said it’s installing six portable toilets throughout its downtown core.
Other cities have taken similar measures. Vancouver updates a list of open facilities weekly, with several hand-washing stations and toilets available. But most toilets aren’t open 24/7. The City of Toronto told VICE it installed seven portable toilets downtown.
Homeless people in major cities are likely facing the same crisis, experts say, and port-a-potties might not be enough to mitigate the widespread health costs of closing public washrooms.
“Anytime you shut down access to public facilities or public spaces, it will impact the homeless population in a number of ways, especially around hygiene issues,” said Elliott Tanti, the communications manager for Edmonton’s Boyle Street Community Services, an organization that supports the homeless.
According to Tanti, people need to be on the lookout for “more opportunities, not less” when it comes to building public washrooms, but solutions are “tricky.”
“It’s not just opening up a bunch of porta-potties across the city,” Tanti said. “With a public space that produces privacy, overdose is obviously a concern.”
The city has already installed public restrooms on Edmonton’s popular Whyte Avenue as part of a pilot project to improve hygiene accessibility, but they are only open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Local officials said washrooms in select parks and public transit stations will remain open, but most do not operate 24/7.
Roman Pabayo, a University of Alberta epidemiologist, said any lack of restrooms could turn into a public health issue for everyone if people are left with nowhere to defecate but streets and alleys.
It’s too early to tell whether COVID-19 found in human feces can infect others, but preliminary studies suggest the virus can live in human waste.
Two other coronaviruses—SARS and MERS—can be passed on from a sick person’s stool, and persist in feces even after respiratory symptoms disappear.
“If one segment of the population is not being protected, it affects everyone,” Pabayo said.
And without access to running water, homeless people can’t follow the advice of public health officials. Namely, hand-washing.
“It is the most effective strategy to combat the COVID-19 pandemic,” Pabayo said. “If you have no bathroom, where are you supposed to wash your hands?”
Even though portable toilets are usually stocked with hand sanitizer, Pabayo said, using soap and water to wash hands is “always the best” way to fight off germs.
Any loss of publicly accessible facilities reveals stark social inequities, Pabayo added.
“Homeless people and other disadvantaged groups are already going to face a disproportionate brunt of this pandemic,” he said.
“Access to all these things is not equitable…We’re all human; we all have to go to the bathroom somewhere.”
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