Civic report question continuation of portable public washroom program
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City of Winnipeg officials are pondering whether to end support of portable washrooms that provide vulnerable folks “places to go,” after repeated issues with vandalism, theft and fires.
On Tuesday, community services director Cindy Fernandes said staff may ask council to end that piece of the program in a report headed to executive policy committee in March.
“The recommendation that you’ll see in the next report is that we may not continue with the temporary ones moving forward, and focus on the permanent washroom’s success,” Fernandes told council’s community services committee.
The comment came after staff described how the temporary washrooms were offered at various public locations since 2020, with the intention of providing a clean space.
Unfortunately, the facilities were subjected to many instances of vandalism, theft (in some cases including urinals and exhaust piping), structural damage and fire. By the time of a recent city report, three fires had caused major damage to one washroom and burned down two others.
Last week, a washroom at Furby Street also burned down, leaving one portable washroom in place on each of Maryland and Young streets and Selkirk Avenue, the committee heard.
Fernandes told reporters a final decision on the recommendation hasn’t been made just yet. She said ending the program could free up cash to prevent a planned reduction in the hours of the city’s permanent public washroom, named Amoowigamig, at 715 Main St.
“The funds that we have are static… So, in order to supplement the hours of the permanent (one), we’ve been thinking about potentially transferring some of the funds that were set aside for the temporary ones to go to the permanent to increase the hours back up to the 10 hours (per day),” she said.
Fernandes did not provide an estimate of how much money could be transferred for that purpose, if the portable washrooms are removed.
Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre began providing peer supports from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at Amoowigamig (located next to Circle of Life Thunderbird House), seven days a week, in June 2022.
Council approved $200,000 in each of 2022 and 2023 to pay for that service.
However, the funding falls short of what’s required, due to high demand and extensive staff training needs, according to Ma Mawi. Due to that, the hours are slated to be cut to eight per day, as of May 16.
Fernandes described the permanent washroom as a major success. The city says its outreach services have provided thousands of clean needles, pipes, feminine hygiene products and condoms to folks in need, while its staff also administered doses of life-saving Narcan six times to reverse opioid poisoning and found housing for at least eight people.
Unlike the temporary facilities, it has reported only one vandalism incident.
It’s not clear how council would vote on the potential change.
Coun. John Orlikow, chairman of community services, said he’d like to see additional public washrooms continue, not just the permanent structure, as he believes both are needed to provide vulnerable folks “places to go.”
“I don’t want to drop everything and just say, ‘Our plan now is maybe one permanent centre’… I don’t really like that model. I understand the difficulties we have but I also know the need is very high,” said Orlikow.
The River Heights-Fort Garry councillor suggested the City of Winnipeg could reach out to community organizations who receive city grants to help address the issue — potentially even asking if they would open up their own washrooms to the public more often to improve access to clean facilities.
Orlikow also suggested the city could review which services it can afford to offer at the permanent washroom on Main Street, to see if some savings could be found to keep it open for longer hours in the future.
Ma Mawi estimates it would cost $650,000 per year to operate its current outreach program at the washroom 24-7.
“I want to keep that permanent washroom open (longer hours), but I’m not sure where the city is going to come up with that much funding on their own,” said Orlikow.
“What I’m concerned about right now is that even the permanent washroom won’t be sustainable going forward, so we need to find a plan on how we can make it sustainable for the long term.”
Fernandes said a report with recommendations on how best to move forward and fund the “Places to Go” program is expected to be heard by the executive policy committee March 13.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.