The homeless face many challenges, but one is basic: it’s difficult to get clean. Even if they go to a shelter, those shelters don’t usually have laundry services and may not even have a shower.
Project WeHOPE in Palo Alto, CA is looking to change that for the homeless people it serves in the area. It’s currently raising money for the Dignity on Wheels initiative: a mobile trailer that has showers, restrooms, and laundry facilities.
“Dirty clothes and smell prohibits [the homeless] from going to appointments…or looking for a job,” explained Pastor Paul Bains, the founder of Project WeHOPE. “When you can clean someone up, they feel better about themselves, their self-esteem is raised, they know people aren’t looking down on them because they smell or look dirty. So we figured washing their clothes and giving them the opportunity to shower helps with restoring that dignity to them.”
The idea began with WeHOPE’s board chairman Morris Chubb, who Bains said has “really led the charge.” It’s also been informed by the work Bains and his organization has done helping the homeless both through its shelter — which became a full-time facility in November — and outreach to those who, for various reasons, don’t want to come inside.
The plan is to not just offer cleaning services, but use the trailer as a means of outreach. “More importantly, it will have a case manager or nurse…so they can do a level of triaging,” he said. That can help save money in the hospital system. “If you can do that at early stages and help with preventative care or intervention care, it helps with not losing people on the street.” An estimated 2,000 homeless people died outside last year. And many cities and states have already found it’s far cheaper to house someone and reduce their reliance on emergency rooms than leave them unsheltered. The case managers will “also build relationships to get them to go to mental health appointments, dental appointments, and medical appointments,” he added.
The project is still in fundraising mode, with $70,000 raised of its $170,000 need. “As soon as we raise that money, we’re going to go ahead and launch,” he said. The county has also taken an interest in the project. “They wanted us to get a couple of these,” he said. “We were saying, let us try one first and then we can go from there.” Once operational, the organization plans to bring the mobile trailer to encampments near railroad tracks and in the hills in San Mateo county and then possibly roll it out to Santa Clara county, which has also taken interest.
“Here’s a way to give people the dignity and respect that they deserve to have and build a relationship in the hopes of getting them to go to doctor’s appointments,” Bains explained. “Even if they’re living outside…we can still help triage those health concerns so we don’t have any homeless deaths.”
The idea of mobile shower units has been tried elsewhere: the nonprofit LavaMae in San Francisco rolled out buses with showers and restrooms for the homeless last year. The concept has even made its way to the Vatican, which has installed showers for the homeless at public restrooms. It’s also offering free haircuts and shaves to the homeless on Mondays.