Saturday, June 11, 2005


So it's a big problem. Surprise, surprise!

The ripe stench of human excrement is getting stronger in downtown lanes, curling the stomachs of workers who no longer want to relax by the back door for smoke breaks. "We're getting to the point where the need for public toilets is getting serious," said Charles Gauthier, executive director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association. "There's a burgeoning entertainment district, a growing homelessness problem and people have nowhere to go. I've been with the association for 15 years and it's just becoming more and more of an issue for more of our members. The stench of urine and feces in back lanes in the central business district and the Downtown Eastside, where it's probably a lot worse."

The 10-block city slum is swollen with up to 5,000 injection drug users who have less control of their bowels. Many are homeless and have nowhere to go to the toilet. Often the drug users roam out of the neighbourhood into alleys linking downtown businesses. Gauthier said his members don't want to clean up the piles excrement the homeless make on their properties and he doesn't blame them.

The Vancouver Coastal Health Authority has gotten involved and is calling for action before disease spreads. "Defecating and urinating in the street is not something that's healthy for individuals," said Richard Taki, public health protection officer for the authority. "A number of diseases are passed through the fecal-oral route. If people are tracking this bacteria into eating establishments and public facilities we're running the risk of a problem with rodents and insects carrying bacteria. "Salmonella is the obvious threat and for a lot of the homeless people who are imunocompromised, food poisoning is going to be serious." He said a solution, likely portable public toilets, is imminent. "It's going to be sooner rather than later, it's something we're going ahead with."

City planners met with the business association Wednesday to tell them a range of options will have to be discussed. "There's a considerable cost involved. In the Downtown Eastside we're going to need a supervised bank of toilets and that's going to cost in excess of $5,000 a month," said Bob Ross, a city engineer working on the issue. Open urinals are also in the mix of strategies being considered. "I'm not sure our culture is ready for that. It seems to me it's an undignified and humiliating way of dealing with the problem, but one that also seems to be working in parts of England and Amsterdam," Ross said.

There are logistical and financing challenges in the way of cleaning back lanes. But the city, the health authority and the business association are all in agreement that something has to be done now. "It's awful for residents who have to deal with the smell wafting in through their windows and it's just getting so much worse," said Ross. Stakeholders have been discussing for years a plan to put self-cleaning, automated public toilets in the downtown, but have been afraid that they would be used for prostitution and to shoot drugs. The city has a contract with a street furniture company to provide six of the units and just has to decide if they are something the community would respect and where to put them. "There have been problems with illegal activity happening in the toilets in other cities, like Seattle and San Francisco," said Gauthier. "But now I think we've come to a point in Vancouver where we have to act. The public need far outweighs those concerns. These units are going to be automated and will have a time limit on them. And really, people are going shoot drugs wherever they want."

Vancouver city council has turned to other Canadian municipalities for guidance, but so far nobody has come up with a solution, said Ross. Vancouver is set to commission a study to map the size of the problem and is considering spending more money on maintaining public toilets in the downtown entertainment and business districts. More funding is needed for permanent public washrooms in the Downtown Eastside slum where thousands of homeless drug users have long used alleys as toilets. Kim Kerr, general manager of the Downtown Eastside Resident's Association, said he is disgusted with the plan. "This is a ghetto where people are turned out to rot, we're talking about adults with the mental capabilities of 10-year-olds who are addicted to drugs. They have no home, they have no toilet. What do you expect," Kerr said. "We are worrying about the mess of piss in the street while homeless people are dying. Let's spend the money on toilets on houses. We treat human beings in this city with less concern than we show animals."



A bit of harmless fun is sternly rebuked in San Francisco

The San Francisco 49ers are teaming up with the city's Human Rights Commission to improve their diversity and anti-harassment training in response to the release of an offensive video made by the team's former public relations director. The 15-minute film provided anonymously last week to the San Francisco Chronicle features racist jokes, lesbian soft-porn and topless blondes - and even former PR director Kirk Reynolds impersonating San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom officiating at a mock lesbian wedding.

"While we believed that we had a good diversity awareness program that reached each and every person in this organization, we understand now that this is clearly not the case," team owners John and Denise York said in a statement Thursday. "We will work closely with the city's Human Rights Commission to develop and establish new diversity and sensitivity awareness programs and protocols incorporating creative, meaningful and alternative training methods. These methods will be tailored for the unique dynamics of a professional football team."

Reynolds, who resigned last week, said he made the video to coach players on handling media questions in diverse San Francisco - and never meant it for public consumption. But the public airing of the film - as well as a similar one from 2003 shown by television station KRON earlier this week - prompted intense criticism from Newsom and leaders of some of the minority communities mocked in the video.

Thursday's announcement came a day after the Yorks and other team officials met with city leaders to discuss how to deal with the controversy. "We thought it was extremely productive," said the mayor's spokesman, Peter Ragone, who took part in the meeting. "They demonstrated a real commitment to working with the mayor's office and the entire city family to deal with this issue. Their management has demonstrated a real sincere desire to make sure that this issue is dealt with appropriately, thoroughly and substantively. We are very pleased with this as a starting point."

The team also announced Thursday that incoming City Administrator and former Human Rights Commission Director Ed Lee will serve as the liaison between the city and the team during the process. Lee, who describes himself as a 49ers fan, said he couldn't believe the video when he saw it and considered it "out of character" for the franchise. Lee hopes to have a plan of action in place in about a month, just before the start of training camp. The commission will present the team with a letter spelling out some of its recommendations within the next week and the team will have a week or two to respond, Lee said. "Their apologies have been quite sincere," Lee said. "Now we have to go beyond apologies and go to some levels of action to make sure they take steps to assure this does not happen again. We need to see a culture of change in the organization." Lee, who served as commission director from 1991-96, wants to make sure the players understand how important this issue is and don't see the video as just "locker room humor." "San Francisco is a unique town," Lee said. "There are a lot of different backgrounds that fulfill this fan base. There are a lot of gays, lesbians, Asians and women who support the 49ers."

The Niners also outlined a community outreach plan to deal with fallout from the video. They have scheduled a second community meeting to discuss the videos and the team's commitment to diversity and tolerance. Officials will meet with leaders of the Asian community next Tuesday. "This is the first step of many that we will be taking to restore and solidify our team's position as a leader and champion of diversity, tolerance and respect for others," team lawyer Ed Goines said.



A wooden cross has been removed from the wall of a crematorium chapel "to cater for everyone in a diverse multi-faith society". Torbay council, in Devon, has also renamed the building a "ceremony hall". The Rev Anthony Macey, vicar of nearby Cockington and Chelston, discovered that the 5ft cross had been taken down when he arrived to conduct a funeral. No other religions had complained about the cross, he said, and he hoped the council would reconsider its decision. "It is political correctness gone mad. That cross has been in the chapel for 50 years. It seems stupid to remove it when most of the funerals are Christian.

But Alan Faulkner, the executive member for environmental services of the Liberal Democrat-controlled council, said: "We live in a diverse multi faith society and many people have no specific beliefs at all. "The facility at Torquay crematorium is a ceremony hall. It is not a chapel and it is not consecrated."

Peter Haywood, the chairman of the Seamen's Christian Friends Society, refused to conduct a service until a wooden cross was put back. "I'm afraid I blew my top about this," he said. Ian Loram, a local funeral director, said he had had only one request for the cross to be removed in 25 years. If there was concern the cross should be reinstated with a curtain, he said.


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