You are walking home from work. Normally, you take the subway, but you have started to feel uneasy on public transit due to the surge in COVID-19 cases. Before you left the office, you felt like you might need to use the washroom. However, you foolishly decided to hold it. Now that you are halfway between work and home, you realize that you won’t make it. You rush into a coffee shop, but they’ve closed their washrooms due to COVID. You try the gas station next door, but they, too, have closed their washrooms. You are so desperate that you even knock on a stranger’s door, but there is no answer.
What are you going to do?
If you are lucky, you will never find yourself in the situation described above. Unfortunately, many people will be all too familiar with the panic of not being able to find a washroom. There has always been a lack of public washrooms in major Ontario cities, including Toronto, but only during the COVID-19 pandemic has the issue attracted public attention. Prior to the pandemic, most people relied on washrooms located in businesses, which may be referred to as publicly-accessible washrooms. Public washrooms, on the other hand, are washrooms established and maintained by local governments. Now that many publicly-accessible washrooms are closed, it has become obvious that there is a serious lack of public washrooms.
HamOntWashrooms is a social media advocacy campaign that brings awareness to the lack of public washrooms, why it is a problem, and what we can do to fix it. Through Instagram (@hamontwashrooms) and Twitter (@hamontwashrooms), HamOntWashrooms makes public washroom research and policy accessible through infographics, data summaries, and links to relevant resources.
The initiative was started by McMaster University student, Fairuz Karim. Fairuz is pursuing a degree in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Behaviour, with a double minor in Sociology and Sustainability. During her undergraduate career, she developed a passion for community advocacy, which led her to create HamOntWashrooms. Fairuz sat down with me to speak more about the initiative.
“The HamOntWashroom public washroom advocacy campaign came out of a class project I was doing this past summer in a course called SUSTAIN 2SS3: Advocating for Sustainability with Professor Sarah Precious . . . While taking this course and even before, I was having conversations with my parents and friends about how it’s become difficult to navigate the outdoors because there are no washrooms. You would think that it’s something that our cities would have. It seems like such a basic necessity.
In this course, we learned about how to tie in advocacy with sustainability to address real, pressing issues in the Hamilton community. We were presented with a couple of different issues and one of them was the lack of public washrooms in Hamilton. I knew instantly that I wanted to work on addressing this issue. The project was championed by Kate Whalan, Senior Director of the Academic Sustainability Programs Office, and Violetta Nikolskaya, Senior Analyst of Programs and Advocacy at the YWCA Hamilton. Working with a group of amazing peers coming from various academic backgrounds, Kate, and Violetta, we developed a social media campaign to talk about the lack of public washrooms in Hamilton. Our team was highly interdisciplinary, and I think that added to the strength of our campaign. The project didn’t end when the course finished. My group members had other responsibilities and could not continue with the project. However, I was very happy to keep pushing forward with our social media campaign. I worked with Kate and Violetta to refine the social media campaign and to write an op-ed on the issue of public washroom access.”
In the op-ed, published in the Hamilton Spectator, Fairuz outlines the problem of public washroom access and its effects on physical health, such as increased spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. During our conversation, Fairuz also highlighted the mental health consequences that stem from the lack of public washrooms.
“Public washrooms are important for upholding dignity. The lack of these facilities is disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable in our communities, including those who are experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. This issue is also a highly intersectional one. It greatly impacts those who menstruate, those who are pregnant, those with small children, those with differing abilities, and those who need frequent access to washrooms.
For these populations, washroom access is fundamental to the reasonable use and enjoyment of public spaces. Now that COVID-19 restrictions have limited other options for recreation and leisure, public spaces are more important than ever for everyone’s mental health. However, without public washrooms, many individuals cannot use these spaces and thus face an additional and entirely preventable barrier to wellbeing.
“Being able to easily access or not having to think about difficulties when it comes to washroom access has a lot to do with ‘toilet privilege’. Not having access to public washrooms is really marginalizing and it has to be addressed more . . . For any individual who has had to plan their day around public washrooms, there's a lot of stress and mental pressure if there isn't any access to a safe, clean, and accessible public washroom. In this way, this issue definitely has an intersection with your mental wellbeing when you think about the levels of stress and anxiety that might be around the inability to access washrooms.”
Given the demonstrable negative effects of the lack of public washrooms, it seems strange that municipalities do not prioritize public washrooms. I asked Fairuz for her thoughts on this.
“There's a lot of stigma associated with public washrooms. But they are so important for the health of our cities. We need public washrooms for a more sustainable future. As Leslie Lowe says, who is the author of ‘No Place to Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs’, public washrooms are pieces of city infrastructure that are just as important as road lights or street benches. Public washrooms might not be a priority because of how heavily stigmatized the topic is. We have to work together on destigmatizing, addressing, and planning next steps to create actual solutions that place the needs of people and communities at their core. We need a different way of thinking, which starts off with doing better in listening and collaborating.
That's where the social media campaign comes in, right? Putting this uncomfortable, important topic into normal everyday conversation . . . We really need to bring this to the forefront of our conversations to get municipalities to put it on their agendas.”
For those who are interested in addressing the lack of public washrooms in their own communities, Fairuz has some advice.
“Right now, they could be vocal about their opinions, whether that's on social media or contacting their local MPs or councilors. It’s especially important to emphasize how much of an impact this has been having on homeless individuals during COVID. If you are able, be active in letting your concerns be known.”
Edited by Amy Chan & Emily Mastragostino