From left: Trinity Western University students Anna Demian

Everybody poops: Lack of public toilets is a social justice issue

Loss of dignity and diminished health is a reality for people living on the streets of 'The Strip' in Surrey

Everyone poops; however, the access to publicly accessible toilets or washrooms is not as universal.

When one is used to always having a washroom reasonably available, the idea of not having anywhere to go, or possibly being denied access, seems absurd. This lack of access, however, is the reality for many people living on the streets – especially on 135A Street in Surrey – “The Strip,” as it is known.

Not having accessible toilets is not just an issue of sanitation, but also one of humanity and dignity. As a student nurse, I have learned that the problems associated with poor sanitation are all too relevant to the health care system. Sanitation is the cornerstone of public health.

In her article, No Toilets for the Homeless (2016), Stacey McKenna, explained that the scarcity of public toilets can “exacerbate health problems such as body lice, skin infections, gastric illness, prostate and bowel issues, as well as the spread of communicable disease.”

The report No Right to Rest (Robinson & Sickels, 2015) underscored that this problem is a public health crisis.

Alongside these health concerns come dignity, self-esteem and the issue of safety associated with open defecation.

My nursing classmates and I recently conducted a survey of the area surrounding “The Strip” and found a scarce number of accessible washrooms, and those that existed had long wait times.

When members of the community, including volunteers and persons living on the street, were asked if access to washrooms was a problem, the answer was always a resounding yes. What few public toilets are available are often only open during the day with limited accessibility for those living on the streets.

Without the basic necessities such as a toilet, showers, or even somewhere to wash up, people living on the streets have many forces working against them. Hygiene, which is an important aspect in health, is pertinent when applying for jobs. The absence of publicly accessible toilets means that persons on the street are stuck in an untenable situation – that of openly defecating rather than soiling one’s limited clothes. This in turn leads to further stigmatization and separation within society.

This embarrassing, unsafe, and penalized act should not be forced upon those whose desperation supersedes their wishes. Never before had the idea crossed our minds of where one goes while living on the streets. However, it became immediately apparent as we spent some time during our clinical placement at NightShift Ministries. Our hope is to bring awareness of this invisible problem to the community.

Exploring the routes other cities have taken to address this problem, such as the Portland Loo and San Francisco’s Lava Mae, will hopefully lead to a solution in Surrey that is agreeable and beneficial to everyone in the community.

Sharing in humanity and contributing positively towards public health are the potential results of this very important issue.

 

Elliott Burns, Anna Demian, Dawson McCann and Deborah Gibson (Faculty)

Trinity Western University

School of Nursing students