Bannerman Park porta-potties open with ribbon-cutting ceremony despite now reopened public washrooms
Ceremony used by residents and volunteers alike to send a message to mayor
Two portable toilets for the tent encampment behind the Colonial Building in downtown St. John's were opened Saturday morning.
Those living in the encampment and advocacy group Tent City for Change officially marked the occasion with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, which volunteer Daniel Smith says served a two-fold purpose.
"The residents got together and had a chat about, what are we going to do to get the mayor down here? Because the mayor hasn't been here yet," said Smith.
"So, it's a part of the celebration here today but also a message to the mayor to come down and speak to some of the most vulnerable citizens."
While one of the portable toilets was donated by the Newfoundland and Labrador Association for Private and Public Employees union (NAPE), the other was financed through community donations.
Those donations came in after the City of St. John's closed the public washrooms in Bannerman Park on Wednesday, citing continued vandalism. On Friday evening, following the establishment of a provincial task force on homelessness and subsequent additional resources, the city announced the reopening of the washrooms 24 hours a day on a permanent basis.
Yet, Smith called the city's initial decision to close the washrooms, which coincided with a forecast winter storm, "inhumane."
"At the end of the day, if there was damage done, you don't lock it up. You don't take away that essential infrastructure for people who are living outside in December in St. John's," he said.
"You figure out a way to make it work. But I mean, the city … doesn't have the capacity to figure that out, sadly."
Leo Beluse only recently joined the encampment, and said it has become home within that short period of time.
He said he is grateful for community donations, whether it be food, clothes or porta-potties.
Yet, Beluse criticized the city's decision to temporarily shut down access to the park's washrooms and said he doesn't think a portable toilet acts as a full equivalent.
"[The washrooms] shouldn't have been closed to begin with just because of one incident. What is wrong with them? They can't hire a private firm to put one woman, one man on the door of each one?" he said.
"This [porta-potty] does not replace a sink where you can wash up, where you can get yourself a shave, where a woman can have a mirror, wash her face, put on some makeup if she chooses to."
Fellow tent protester Gregory McCain has been living on the streets for eight years. The last four years were spent in Newfoundland and Labrador.
He agrees with Beluse that washroom access is a necessity.
"That's the worst thing about living outside. … When these porta-potties ain't here, where are you gonna go to pee? Even if you go up in the corner and somebody walks behind you, it's one of the worst things. I don't mind the cold and the rain and the wet. I don't know if it's degrading or what it is, but I just don't like it," said McCain.
"There's a friend of mine here; she has to use Pampers. Go and change your Pampers outside, in public? No, man. Give people their privacy. It's a basic need."
Meanwhile, Smith believes that those living in the encampment as well as volunteers on the ground should be included in continuing conversations around housing solutions.
He is skeptical whether the newly-established provincial task force on homelessness will achieve change.
"It's great that decision-makers and leaders of community organizations are involved, but unless you're hearing voices from people on the ground who are doing that work, I don't know where it's going to go," said Smith.
"We got hope but, I mean, that hope is, that's all we got right now."