The City of Prince George has opened washrooms for homeless people in the heart of downtown to help stall the spread of COVID-19.
It comes after years of pressure from the homeless community and advocates to make a public facility available.
Now the pandemic has spurred the city into action so that everyone in the area is guaranteed a place to wash their hands.
“Handwashing is really critical, especially with hot water. So … it was a matter of urgency,” said Chris Bone, the City of Prince George’s associate director of strategic initiatives and partnerships.
Bone says the recent COVID-19 closures of downtown businesses and civic facilities, like the pool and library, made it even more difficult for people to access washrooms.
The new facility at the civc plaza is open for two five-hour stretches — 5 a.m.-10 a.m. and 7 p.m.-midnight — to cover off hours during which few services are available for those sleeping rough.
‘Silver lining’ of pandemic
The washrooms’ location is marked by a large, bright-orange shipping container, which acts as a shelter for the people who staff and monitor the facility.
Marcus Smaaslet, one of the peer support workers in high-visibility vests who monitors the restrooms, pulls open a door to reveal shiny metal sinks and toilet stalls.
“I’m not going to make a speech,” he says.
Smaaslet was hired by the Pounds Project, a drug users’ support group, to keep the stalls safe and sanitized and to stay vigilant for overdoses.
“If you don’t have … a sink or soap, handwashing is really hard,” said Jordan Harris, executive director of the Pounds Project.
Harris says people on the street may be the ones using the facility’s toilets and sinks, but everyone in the city benefits.
“You can wash your hands as much as you want, but if other people aren’t you are still at risk. So this … reduces the number of infections that we could potentially see in this community,” said Harris, who is also a registered nurse.
Harris said it’s unfortunate it took a “public health crisis” to get washroom access, but it’s a “silver lining.”
For years, people living on the street — about 160 of them by the city’s estimate — have pushed for more public restrooms. When people have to leave shelters or meal programs for the day, they may have had to use back alleys and sheltered spots instead.
Late last year, as a pilot project, the city extended the hours of washroom access at some social service agencies.
Feedback has been positive, city says
Local businesses and residents appear to approve of the new washrooms, Bone says.
Last year, several downtown store owners complained about homeless people congregating in the area and some demanded that services supporting them be moved out of the area. Businesses were upset about thefts and assaults and about needles and human feces being found on the ground.
But a month after Prince George quietly opened the downtown washrooms, Bone says “individuals from all walks of life” are giving positive feedback.
“People are remarking how clean it is in the civic plaza and how pleased they are that people have an option to use a washroom,” said Bone.
It’s not yet clear if the washrooms will remain open after the pandemic.
To hear a virtual tour of the washrooms, tap here.