No place to go | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

No place to go

As an unsung part of urban development, an abundance of public toilets can make a great city. Downtown Shanghai boasts a toilet every 300 metres. Then there’s Halifax, waiting for the toilet revolution to come.

photo Darryl James

Matt Smythe is homeless.

And while he may spend nights sleeping on the cold concrete sidewalks of downtown Halifax, he would never pee there.

“It’s a real nuisance. But unlike a lot of other people, I really take issue with the I’ll-go-anywhere approach,” says the clean-cut Ontario native, sitting behind a desk at the Halifax Coalition Against Poverty, where he works as a volunteer. “I know quite a few people who at least once or twice have woken up because someone is peeing two feet away. And you’re like, yeah, OK, I’m hoping the ground isn’t too sloped toward me.”

Twenty-seven-year-old Smythe (that’s not his real last name) gets free meals from soup kitchens and churches—Hope Cottage on weekdays, St. Matthew’s and St. Andrew’s United on weekends—and gets what sleep he can after dark in the doorways of downtown storefronts. There are plenty of businesses where he can find an alcove to crash, even spots where security guards “can be OK with it as long as you don’t leave a mess or be disruptive or anything like that.”

What Smythe can’t find in downtown Halifax is a place to go to the bathroom.

Smythe has been in Halifax since the end of August. He is, in his words, “very much” homeless—”I’m living on the street,” he says, “and not in a shelter.” He spends days at the Halifax Coalition Against Poverty, at the library, or looking for a job. “The odd time, a bit of panning to get enough money to do laundry, that sort of thing,” he says. “The days can get kind of long.”

His bathroom visits are catch-as-catch-can. Smythe is a regular at downtown Halifax’s only municipal-run public washroom facility, inside the Ferry Terminal at the base of George Street. He visits the public washrooms at Bishop’s Landing, too, which are owned and maintained by the Waterfront Development Corporation. The Bishop’s Landing toilets are only open during the peak tourist months—May through October. As a last resort, Smythe uses the facilities at coffee shops like Tim Hortons. But he wishes he didn’t have to go into commericial spaces to pee.

“It makes me feel like I’m inconveniencing the business by having to go in there,” he says. “I would love to say that I could buy a coffee every time, but that will kind of contribute to the problem of having to go to the bathroom. And you don’t always have the money to do that either.”

Anyone—homeless or not—who’s had to come off the street and into a business to use the toilet because there’s no public one in sight and no signs indicating where one might be found can relate to the feeling Mat Smythe describes. Clara Greed has even given it a name—“glares.”

Greed is a professor of inclusive urban planning at the University of the West of England, in Bristol. For 11 years, she’s been researching what the British Toilet Association (of which she’s a member) calls “away from home” toilets—those for tourists, shoppers, public transport users, as well as toilets in the work place.

Greed’s aptly named glares can happen literally: “A classic example,” she says on the phone from her home office in Bristol, “would be a McDonald’s situation where toilets and they get people staring at them, thinking, oh, you’ve only come in to use the toilet.”

Or, glares can take other forms. “I was down in Cardiff Railway Station in Wales the other day,” Greed says, “and they had a system whereby, at the ordinary sort of cafe on the concourse, there was a toilet. You had to go up to the bar and ask, and the barman pressed a button to let you in.”

Glares, according to Greed, are a symptom of something gone wrong in society. “It’s a very nasty, negative attitude,” she says. “It’s almost like they look at people and decide: are they worthy to use the toilet? And if they look a bit homeless or dirty or rough or whatever, they may not let them in.”

Greed argues in her 2003 book Inclusive Urban Design: Public Toilets that you can judge a nation by its toilets. And in the public realm, lack of adequate, municipal-run toilet provision relates directly to how governments treat people—cruise ship passengers, white collar workers, homeless teens, women with kids, the working poor. Glares are only one small part of what’s wrong when it comes to toilet provision.

Mat Smythe might consider glares a small issue too. Because at night, huddled against the wind in the cubby of a downtown Halifax storefront, glares are the least of his bathroom problems.

At 8pm daily, the public entrance to the Bishop’s Landing public toilets is locked by a concierge. And at midnight—or 6:30pm on Sundays—the ferry stops running and the Halifax Ferry Terminal building closes. And along with them, downtown’s only official public washrooms.

“Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights are tough,” says Smythe, “because when the coffee shops are closed the bars are charging cover. So it’s like OK, walk all the way up to the other end of Barrington to go to the Tim Hortons there or that’s pretty much it.”

Smythe does the walking. A lot of people don’t. “Just in the course of an average night on the weekend from sitting down there,” he says, “you see 20 or 30 people saying, ‘Hey, there’s a storefront, there’s an alley.’ They’ll take a piss wherever they feel like it. I’ve seen a few people, ‘Hey, I’ve got to take a shit, well, I’ll just go around here to this storefront.’ Like, who cares if it’s a business and they don’t want the front door smelling like piss or shit there in the morning. There are a lot of people who will just go anywhere, especially after they’ve been drinking, or even in the middle of the day.”

Everyone’s got a theory on public urination—that it’s a product of alcohol-fuelled bravado, a natural corollary to the increase in anti-social behaviour like graffiti, a throw-back to pre-civilized territory marking, or homeless people who are too lazy to move. It’s primarily, if not exclusively, men who commit the act. Does that mean women don’t have any problems finding a spot to relieve themselves?

Far from it.

Enter Kathryn Anthony and the fight for potty parity.

“Why is it,” Anthony says, “that when you go to a theatre, or a stadium, or some place like an airport—anywhere there are large numbers of people coming out at the same time—why is it that we often see a long line at the ladies’ room and no line at the men’s room? Why is it OK for women to have to wait and for men not to have to wait? It’s not OK. And it’s one of the last relics of gender discrimination and one of the more subtle forms of gender discrimination that we see in our society.”

Anthony is a professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She’s been there for 21 years; for that time, she’s been researching toilets, toilet design and the way toilets affect people’s—primarily women’s—lives. She’s a board member of the American Restroom Association and gave a talk in May 2005 called “Gender and Family Issues in Restroom Design” at Shanghai, China’s World Toilet Expo and Forum, the gold standard in international toilet conferences. The next World Toilet Expo and Forum takes place November 2006 in Bangkok, Thailand. The theme is “Happy Toilet, Healthy Life.”

If you’re masking a smirk with your hand—or laughing out loud—thinking about a group of professionals spending a weekend talking potty, you’re not the only one.

“Everybody laughs,” Anthony says. She’s on sabbatical and working from her home office in Urbana, Illinois. “Restrooms is one of those taboo topics. We all do it several times a day, but do we discuss it? No. We disappear, do our business, and come back. It’s something people don’t feel comfortable discussing, yet they can all relate to it. Because of our fetishes and our fears of doing private business in a public place, the jokes still linger.”

And if you think there’s nothing worth talking about when it comes to toilets, you’re probably healthy, disability-free and solidly middle-class with elderly parents or small children safely in the care of someone else. You probably aren’t one of the world’s more than 1.7 billion people—that’s two out of every five inhabitants worldwide, living mostly in rural India, urban China and sub-Saharan Africa—with no access to toilets at all. And you’re probably a man, who’s never given the line-ups of squirming women leading into ladies’ rooms a thought except to roll your eyes at whatever’s keeping your theatre date from getting back to her seat before intermission ends.

Clara Greed explains women’s bathroom queues this way: “Even if you have the same amounts of cubicles, or stalls, as you call them, you usually also get a row of urinals for the men. And that automatically doubles the provision for men. It is very common in a lot of countries.”

Add to that, biology: “Women generally take twice as long to urinate as men,” Greed says, “and a quarter of all women may be menstruating at any one time, which increases the time.”

And social factors: “Men just pull it out and do it, women have clothing to deal with; wiping—a lot of women blot, as they say, and don’t; and women are more likely to wash their hands after using the toilet than men.

“There have been studies of this,” Greed says. “Women take on average something like 96 seconds , and men take 45 seconds.”

That’s not even counting the fact that women are primary caregivers for potty-training children, infants in diapers and for family members who may be elderly or disabled and need assistance using the toilet.

Greed, in her book Inclusive Urban Design, gives yet more reasons women face waits to use public toilets: “pregnancy…cystitis; to check on worries about vaginal discharge (or to check ‘constantly’ on one’s ‘whites’ if one is using natural birth control to determine fertile days), and simply to check if one’s knickers (pants) or tights are about to fall down, or if one’s period has actually started; because they feel ill, are about to give birth or die; to pray; to cry and to get away, to think and be quiet; to escape from the city of man; and breast feeding (as a last resort).”

It’s not, contrary to stereotypes, that women are gossiping or performing make-up touch-ups. “Most women,” who Greed has found in her research, “say they spend as little time in there as possible because it’s such a threatening and dirty environment. They would never do anything more than quickly wash their hands and get out.”

Kathryn Anthony says people are beginning to move away from blaming women for toilet line-ups. They’re coming around to the notion that these are building design flaws that can be solved by educating architects about women’s toilet needs and by changing building codes. “What we’ve seen in the US is a number of states and a number of municipalities have adopted potty parity laws,” Anthony says. “They have sometimes been 2:1—two facilities for females and one facility for males—and sometimes they’ve been 3:1 and sometimes they’ve been 3:2. The important point is, 1:1 isn’t enough.”

The Nova Scotia Building Code has included potty parity regulations since at least 1985. The current ratio is 2:1 in buildings where the occupancy is 100 people or greater, according to Ed Thornhill, manager of permits and inspections with the Halifax Regional Municipality. But—big but—this potty parity ratio only applies to new and extensively renovated spaces.

For renovations, according to Ed Thornhill, enforcing compliance is a delicate juggling act. “Life safety issues, we don’t negotiate those away,” he says. “But convenience, or lack thereof, it’s a matter of weighing the risk and the imposition on the developer. We try not to be the anti-development department. If they’re completely gutting the washroom, OK, but if, in occupying this space, they’re not renovating the washrooms, then it’s a judgement call.”

Women and men needing wheelchair (also known as barrier-free) access are a little better off than women waiting to pee. While the building code is a convoluted spread of reference charts and tongue-tying pseudo-legalese that makes even Ed Thornhill laugh as he tries to explain it, it boils down to this, he says: “Anywhere that you have a public washroom, it must be handicapped accessible.” Simply, barrier-free access is given greater weight than the quest for more women’s toilets in renovations. “When it comes to barrier-free,” Thornhill says, “there is very little judgement, simply because of the importance to the community.”

This is a boon to parents with children in tow who need larger toilet cubicles for strollers or who, in “regular” stalls, must undertake the impossible task of keeping their pre-schooler’s chest from rubbing against the outside of the toilet bowl as the two squeeze in.

“The population with physical disabilities has been remarkably successful in getting the laws changed and getting needs met,” says Kathryn Anthony, whose late husband was in a wheelchair near the end of his life. “Mothers with children haven’t had the voice they need to express their problems. And they are equally important. Not just mothers with children, but parents with children. You don’t want your little child on the floor in a bathroom when you are changing a diaper.”

But for the spectrum of toilet users, one spacious barrier-free stall just doesn’t cut it.

By putting baby-changing tables inside the barrier-free stalls and simultaneously failing to provide larger adjacent stalls for people with big backpacks or luggage, private owners and governments are designating barrier-free stalls as a fix-all solution aimed to placate many users with little money. The idea is: we have to put this accessible stall in anyway by code, so let’s stuff in everybody else who doesn’t fit into the “normal” cubicles too. “There is more room in there,” says Kathryn Anthony. “And you often see that those stalls are the first to be taken.”

The result? According to Clara Greed, “different types of users are getting aggressive with each other because they’re all competing for a limited amount of facilities.”

So while line-ups leading to women’s toilets are beginning to be widely addressed, the idea that the specifications for “normal” public toilets aren’t meeting people’s needs is rarely mentioned.

“You hear stories of people wanting to use a disabled toilet and there’s this big wheelchair sign,” says Greed. “Anybody who’s got any kind of incontinence problems or catheters or anything where they’ve got to change bags or whatnot, they might not look disabled, but they still need them. And in our research we’ve got stories about men being uneasy when they’ve got to change incontinence pads and they’ve got to do it in a public urinal. When they try to use disabled toilets they might get a lot of criticism from people in wheelchairs or from members of the general public. It’s this idea of glares again.”

People with “invisible disabilities” like these also suffer from situations like the one in downtown Halifax now, where there is an acute scarcity of public facilities. “People with incontinence issues, colitis, Crohn’s disease—when they need a bathroom, they need it fast,” says Kathryn Anthony. “They need it right away, just like kids. If people don’t go when they have to go, they can suffer a lot of serious health issues like cystitis and urinary tract infections.”

Melissa MacKinnon, spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Department of Health, concurs. She says while there aren’t major public health concerns associated with simple bathroom use (most infections stem from people not washing their hands with soap after using the toilet), problems do develop when people don’t go to the toilet when their body tells them it’s time. “Bladder infection,” MacKinnon says, “would be at the top of that list.”

The lack of 24-hour on-street municipal-run toilets, and what passes for that being OK in the eyes of many—the limited-hours toilets at the Halifax Ferry Terminal and Bishop’s Landing, and the assumption that independent business owners don’t mind providing toilets for anyone coming in off the street—is a frustrating fact of life in downtown Halifax for homeless people like Mat Smythe, fathers out-and-about with small children, pregnant teens and women in motorized wheelchairs. Need a more official summary of the problem? Turn to the three-volume Capital District Urban Design Project of March 2004.

The Capital District Urban Design Project is a targeted discussion paper with recommendations for HRM’s Capital District (downtown Halifax and downtown Dartmouth, plus the commercial districts of Gottingen Street, Spring Garden Road and Quinpool Road). The primary discussion of toilets lies in volume one, Streetscape Guidelines and Plans, in a single three-sentence paragraph on page six of chapter 15. The crux: “Amenities that are noticeably absent on the streets of the Capital District are drinking fountains and public washrooms.”

The lack of on-street, municipal-run toilets isn’t just annoying. It flies in the face of this stated objective of the Capital District Urban Design Project: to “reinforce the principle that downtown belongs to everyone.”

While not in the downtown core proper, the Halifax Common is part of the Capital District and governed by its planning schemes. And HRM has a public bathroom there.

There are over 40 national toilet organizations around the world, in places like China, America, India, Russia and South America. In Canada there’s no central advocacy organization dedicated to the plight of “away from home” toilets. Here’s betting, though, if there were a Canadian Toilet Association, its members would have a field day learning about the public toilets on Halifax’s Central Common, AKA the Pavilion toilets off Cogswell Street.

The Pavilion toilets (which are called that because the on-street bathroom entrances are below The Pavilion, an all-ages club which occupies the building’s upper floor) are part of the system of municipal-run public toilets that covers HRM in a spider’s web of recreation centres, emergency service buildings, sports fields and beach parks. There’s no HRM toilet map per se; what substitutes is a map available at showing HRM buildings—there are over 300 in all and about as many washrooms. There’s no HRM Toilet Department either.

A composite snapshot of the 300-odd HRM toilets looks like this: 80 per cent are barrier-free; all are cleaned daily, with half of the cleaning outsourced; none are open 24-hours. A new washroom facility was built last year—with composting toilets—at Sandy Lake Park, off the Hammonds Plains Road, in Bedford. Another new toilet is under construction at the North Common off Cunard Street.

The new North Common toilets will be an additional facility at this important urban park; the existing Pavilion toilets will remain in use. The Common is used by organized sports teams like those in the Metro Intermediate Baseball League and the Halifax Ultimate (Frisbee) Recreational League and by non-league sports players using the tennis and basketball courts, the skateboard park, the new play structure and the children’s spray pool. It’s also a popular dog park, frequented by runners and a well-used path of travel between Halifax’s downtown core and points west.

The foundation has just been poured on the North Common toilets. The building should be completed, and the toilets ready to open, in May 2006. The new facilities will exceed the provincial building code parity ratio of 2:1, including one toilet for men and three for toilets for women. But on top of that, there will be an additional two urinals for men—making the new facilities an example of the kinds of toilets Clara Greed and Kathryn Anthony blame for women’s queues. One major benefit of the new North Common toilets is that they will be barrier-free; both the men’s and women’s washrooms at the existing Pavilion toilets are down flights of stairs, ruling them out for those in wheelchairs, some other disabled users, and adults with strollers.

But even for many able-bodied Common-users, the Pavilion toilets were ruled out long ago.

Finding the Pavilion toilets isn’t easy. There is no signage on the Central or North Common sports fields or courts, nor on any walkways, indicating where the public toilets (or any other amenities) lie. There is only one building on the Common, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the toilets must be in there. But even on the building itself, signage is meagre.

The largest sign points out the entrance to the eponymous all-ages club located within; other signs read NO PARKING HRM AUTHORIZED VEHICLES ONLY and SPRAY POOL RULES: FOOTWEAR REQUIRED, NO DOGS ALLOWED, NO BIKES (hand-written in black marker). The two smallest? LADIES, on the north side, and MENS, on the east. There are no signs to tell visitors the hours the toilets are open, nor any indication where someone in need of a toilet might find relief if the Pavilion toilets were being cleaned or locked up for the day.

They are locked, one bright, chilly autumn afternoon, with imposing chain-link fences squaring-off their entrances like cages. Down past the chained and pad-locked gates are dingy, poorly lit stairs leading to grease-smeared doors. Look left and the neighbouring skatepark is awash in sunshine and buzzing with skateboarders and BMXers riding the bowl. Across Cogswell Street the North Common plays host to handfuls of women and men chatting, running dogs and tossing Frisbees. It’s late autumn. School is out, work is finishing and there are a lot of people around. And there’s a muffled thump, too, against the Pavilion building. It’s two handball players, having a game against the south wall.

The two men in their 20s play against that wall “often.” But where do they go to the bathroom? One guy says, chuckling, like it’s a stupid question, “You plan ahead.” His friend elaborates: “We just live a couple of blocks away so we usually walk home.”

These men they are playing their sport against the wall of a public toilet.

“Yeah,” the first guy says, “I’ve seen it open a couple of times. I just assumed it had been left open by mistake. They’re pretty sketchy.”

We are having this conversation on a Wednesday, at 5:03pm. The doors are locked again when I check on Monday at 2:12pm. Same thing on the following Wednesday at 3:17pm, Thursday at 10:50am, Tuesday at 10:31am and on and on.

According to HRM, the hours of operation for the Pavilion toilets are 8am through 11pm from May through the end of October. “That would be peak season, so I don’t know why ,” says Kevin Conley, a senior parks planner with HRM. “One of the biggest problems HRM seems to have is the logistics of opening and closing doors and gates.”

Conley manages the construction and design of parks and recreation projects in the Capital District and around HRM. He’s not a toilet guy. But he can explain what’s brought on the need for additional toilet facilities on the North Common: “It’s been a long-standing complaint of residences and buildings on that side,” Conley says, “from users like Tony’s pizza at the corner and others, if they can come and use their washrooms. Of course people are using front lawns and yards too. There’s been a lot of complaints.”

You can see the ambivalence on Abraham Salloum’s face when he talks about this problem. Salloum works at Tony’s, on the corner of Robie and Cunard. He says, “Oh. Yes. We get a lot of people. A lot. Especially in the summer. We think sometimes maybe we should say no, it’s only for customers, but then you imagine being in the same position. So we let them.”

Dianne Armstrong, manager of Subway at the corner of Robie and Quinpool, throws out her arm and points to an invisible line-up of people running the length of the entire restaurant floor. “It’s bad,” she says. “We get people lined up to here in the summer. And the bums from the corner go and stay in there an hour. They need a pottie over there or something.”

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