Vancouver businesses call for city to provide public toilets for homeless people during pandemic

·4 min read

People working in Vancouver coffee shops are calling on the city to step up and provide public washrooms for the homeless, saying COVID-19 has forced the young people who often work in them to be front-line workers as the pandemic stretches on.

Julian Bentley, 32, has worked at JJ Bean for 10 years and now manages the location at East 14th Avenue and Main Street in Vancouver.

He said he's dealt with verbal abuse, assault, and just this week, a burning log thrown at his storefront.

But the worst came when a person took their own life in the coffee shop's bathroom.

"I think it's something that's just escalating ... and I have compassion that there are just less resources for those that are unfortunate enough," said Bentley.

"For my staff I think it's unfair for someone who's 18 years old and paid $14 an hour, and then they have to come to work and handle dirty needles and face mental abuse. It's not good for their mental health."

The issue isn't new for Vancouver — in a city with a growing homelessness crisis, fast-food restaurants and coffee shops have long served as makeshift drop-in centres for people trying to stay warm and dry. In 2018 there was public outcry after a 74-year-old man named Ted died in a Tim Hortons location on Broadway, and wasn't noticed for several hours.

Since then, the pandemic and an increasingly toxic street drug supply have only worsened the issue.

City 'grateful' for businesses providing bathroom access

In a statement, the City of Vancouver acknowledged COVID-19 has complicated access to public bathrooms and said it was grateful to all businesses who have kept them open.

"The closure of public facilities during COVID-19 has led to many people not having safe access to washrooms. This can lead to an increased risk of overdose and violence, as well as a loss of dignity as many people are forced to use alleys and other public and private spaces as washrooms, increasing sanitation concerns," the statement read in part.

"We are committed to expanding washroom access and are currently finalizing details of new initiatives that will provide immediate action on this issue."

The city says it's working on increasing access to essential resources like washrooms, but for now is focusing on hotspots like the Downtown Eastside and Strathcona Park.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Mayor Kennedy Stewart, speaking to CBC's On The Coast, asked businesses for patience, saying more support is coming.

But John Neate, the owner of JJ Bean, which has 21 locations, said he's concerned for his staff and feels caught between the police and the city. He said the city should at minimum create a hotline for staff to call when a situation escalates.

"When we phone the police for such issues, those are considered non-emergency. I have asked a number of times for public washrooms, but I never know who to ask. There seems to be misdirection. It's a city thing, it's a provincial thing," he said.

"But nobody wants to put in a public washroom that the city would need to maintain."

Const. Steve Addison with the Vancouver Police Department said he understands the frustrations of business owners like Neate, and that police respond and open a file when behaviour is considered criminal.

"They're justifiably frustrated by it. I should say that homelessness isn't a crime in the city and the vast majority of people who are homeless in the city, we don't hear from," he said.

"Some of them are criminal issues — but we're also dealing with issues that are beyond the scope of the police department, we're dealing with issues of homelessness, mental health poverty and drug addiction."

Bill MacEwan, lead psychiatrist with Vancouver's Downtown Community Court mental health team, said he understands the frustration as well, but said some of that is due to "very little support from the health, or civic, or police resources that are available" when people see someone in need.

He said when officials respond to a situation where someone is struggling with myriad socio-economic and health issues, it is better to use the opportunity to talk about what supports they need, rather than entangle them in the justice system over petty crimes.

"Everything seems to be falling through the cracks here," said MacEwan on CBC's The Early Edition on Thursday.