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A bank of portabe toilets in Toronto's High Park on Jan. 27, 2021.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Most city dwellers don’t think often about public toilets. They don’t need to, relying instead on the vast array of private-sector facilities that gradually filled the role.

But COVID-19 restrictions have closed many of these surrogate options – often shuttering the pit stop at the mall, the restroom in the fast-food joint, the café toilet.

It’s a situation that brings into stark relief the difficulties long faced by homeless people, who aren’t always welcome in the privately owned facilities others could pop into blithely. As these options closed, residents learned what homeless populations already knew: Good public toilets are too hard to find.

While some Canadian cities have moved temporarily to address the gap – from washroom trailers in Vancouver to Toronto keeping open some park restrooms that would normally close in winter and Halifax building a facility outside its central library – critics say it isn’t enough. They argue that, a year into the pandemic, much more needs to be done to address a decades-old toilet deficit.

“We have to do something, as a society, around public sanitation,” said Bessa Whitmore, with the GottaGo! public-toilet advocacy group in Ottawa. “We need to make them places that everybody wants to go, and that means they’re clean, they’re inviting. You know, we can do this, we just haven’t put time and energy and priority in it.”

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The result is that people are subject to what advocates call “bladder’s leash,” unable to stray too far from where they know there to be toilet facilities. And the official options often aren’t great. Many cities allow public toilets to became marginal zones, neglected, dirty and run down.

Public toilets have long struggled with notoriety that may help explain their lack of political support. In the early days they were criticized as haunts for prostitutes. In later decades, they gained a reputation as sites for intravenous drug use or anonymous sex.

Over the decades, residents gravitated to increasingly common private-sector toilets. But those facilities may now be inconsistently available because of pandemic restrictions.

Many malls have closed their toilets, and so has Starbucks Canada at its locations where seating is unavailable. While McDonald’s Canada has encouraged franchise owners offering take-out to keep toilets open, the decision is left to them. Tim Hortons said its owners are committed to keeping toilets open “to be there for people serving on the front lines,” and that patrons should call the company if they find a facility closed.

“If there is one silver lining from COVID, I hope it is that people begin to realize that [the current level of] access, that constrained access that many people are experiencing for the first time during COVID, is actually the norm for many, many people,” said Lezlie Lowe, the Halifax-based author of the 2018 book No Place to Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs.

“Hopefully people can come out of this and recognize that we need to shift the model from those publicly accessible [private] toilets to true public toilets.”

There’s no evidence yet that Canadian cities are having that conversation. But a number have recognized the importance of public toilets during COVID-19 and have moved to increase them, on at least a short-term basis.

As well as the toilets by its library, Halifax expanded access to other washrooms and added public toilets information to its open data site. Ottawa installed a number of porta-potties, cleaning them as often as five times a day, and short-listed a pair of self-cleaning toilets among projects suitable for short-term federal and provincial COVID-19 funding.

Montreal installed four self-cleaning toilets in the core, as well as more than 100 porta-potties in parks and in places where homeless populations create demand. Although temporary toilets in that city made the news this month after a homeless person froze to death in one, the head of a nearby shelter said that particular porta-potty predated the pandemic.

In Toronto, the city is keeping open during the day a number of toilets in parks that would normally close in winter. Various porta-potties have been installed around the core, often in areas where homeless people might need them. Edmonton says the city has worked with a local social agency to provide attendants at some public toilets and boosted cleaning of unstaffed parks washrooms, to keep them safe.

Whether any of this leads to a lasting toilet renaissance remains to be seen. Ms. Lowe has found that toilets are a civic amenity that tends to lack political champions. The subject is hard for some politicians even to talk about, she said, describing city councillors who become tongue-tied when the topic of menstruation comes up in a meeting.

While there are cities with great public toilets, these tend to be rare enough to earn media coverage.

Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban installed a pair of glass-walled toilets in Tokyo’s Shibuya neighbourhood, allowing would-be patrons to assess cleanliness and safety. Before use, the facility’s walls become opaque. A toilet renovation in New York’s Greeley Square opened this year as a truly luxurious facility, complete with classical music.

But a public toilet doesn’t have to be grand. It has to be well thought out, and properly maintained.

As part of its COVID-19 response, Vancouver installed three restroom trailers, in partnership with social-service agencies. One of those partners, the WISH Drop-in Centre, has been operating a trailer on its backlot in the Downtown Eastside. It has washing facilities and an attendant to ensure patron safety.

Although this trailer was installed to meet the needs of marginalized individuals in the community, the head of WISH said the lessons of their facility are more broadly applicable.

“It’s more than just clean and safe, it should also be pleasant and dignified,” said Mebrat Beyene, executive director of the drop-in centre.

“If you design something for those that have been made the most vulnerable and if you design something with those in mind, with those who see the most systemic barriers, then you will have designed something that’s better for everyone.”

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