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Around the World with Soap and Water

a drawing of  the mobile trailer

The barbers of Rome were among the first to get on board with the Vatican’s plan for a beautiful and useful facility near St. Peter’s Square where people experiencing homelessness can get cleaned up. The hair specialists have donated barber chairs and other necessary equipment, and have pledged their time and talents. Haircuts are offered on Mondays, and showers six days a week, at the historic location that opened earlier this month.

Monsignor Konrad Krajewski, the papal almoner (person in charge of giving alms), handed out 400 sleeping bags in December and 300 umbrellas that had been left by visitors to the Vatican’s various museums. Regarding the new cleanliness center, his office announced:

Our pilgrims without a home will receive, along with a shower, a complete change of underwear and a kit with a towel, soap, toothpaste, razor, shaving cream and deodorant, according to different individual needs.

The financing comes from businesses, individuals, and the sale of “parchments certifying a papal blessing,” says writer Carol Glatz, who adds more good news:

The Vatican communiqué said the St. Peter’s shower project is part of a larger initiative, in partnership with local parishes, to install similar amenities throughout the city in areas where there are soup kitchens and large numbers of homeless people.

The Catholic Herald page also presents a concise, one-minute video tour of the new shower facilities. House the Homeless has mentioned Pope Francis before, because of HtH founder Richard R. Troxell’s collaboration with Timothy P. Schmalz, the Canadian artist who created the sculpture “Jesus the Homeless.” Casts of it can now be found in many American cities, and when a smaller-scale version visited the Vatican, the Pope looked favorably upon it. If Rome’s city government approves, a full-size statue may be placed along the Via della Conziliazione.

Showers and Flip Flops in America

In the summer of 2014, six teenagers in Savannah, Georgia, wanted to do something useful, so they asked around and learned that the Inner City Night Shelter and the Social Apostalate could use shower shoes. While both facilities offered showers to people experiencing homelessness, their budgets didn’t stretch to preventative measures against athlete’s foot. So the kids raised money for 3,200 pairs of flip-flops.

In July, Bethany Grace Community Church in Bridgeton, New Jersey, inaugurated a shower and clean underwear program, church-open-shower-program-homeless/12119441/open two hours every Saturday morning.
The picture at the top of this page is from Project WeHOPE, in Palo Alto, California, which is currently raising funds for the Dignity on Wheels project. The organization hopes to put its trailer on the road, bringing restrooms, showers, and washing machines to those in need.

WeHOPE opened a full-time shelter in November, and plans to send a nurse or a case manager along with the hygiene trailer when it starts up. Like San Francisco’s Lava Mae project, in addition to helping people directly, the intention is relieve the local hospitals by providing some prevention and intervention, reducing the overall amount of illness.

Reactions?

Source: “Vatican unveils free showers and haircuts for the homeless,” CatholicHerald.co.uk, 02/07/15
Source: “Flip Flop Drop Provides Shower Shoes to the Homeless in Georgia,” People.com, 07/24/14
Source: “Church to open shower program for homeless,” TheDailyJournal.com. 07/04/14
Source: “This Really Simple Idea Could Change Homeless People’s Lives,” ThinkProgress.org, 02/03/15
Image by Dignity on Wheels

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Austin’s Protect and Serve Survey

picture 084One of the traditions of House the Homeless (founded in 1989) is the survey through which people experiencing homelessness in Austin, Texas, can go on record about various matters that affect their lives. The questions were composed by the organization’s president and founder, Richard R. Troxell, who is also Director of Legal Aid for the Homeless.

This year’s topic, presented at the annual Thermal Underwear Distribution Party, was “Protect and Serve,” and concerned interactions with the police. One word instantly springs to mind when describing the results: appalling.

277 participants, averaging 45 years of age, answered the questions, with about four times as many males as females responding. A lot of mistreatment is the petty kind of stuff that housed people rarely encounter, like being told to “move along” when in a public place. Then, there is another tier of harassment, revealed in answer to the question, “Did you ever get a ticket, go to court, then be told your ticket is not in the system yet and you would have to return?”

The Community Court system is supposed to be an improvement on the old way of handling minor crime, but in far too many cases, as Richard notes, it “actually hinders their ability to change their condition of being homeless.” Here is how he puts it:

We have been told that people have often had to return to the court multiple times before a ticket is reported to the court. If a person is unable to coordinate their response with the submittal of the ticket, then it will “go to warrant.” This will result in the arrest of the individual for what was otherwise only a class C ticket, equivalent to a parking ticket.

When you don’t have a car or a telephone or a computer; when there is no secure place to store your belongings; when you don’t have the right clothes or accessories to protect yourself from the weather; when you don’t know where your next meal will come from or where you will sleep that night; when you are physically disabled or suffering from mental illness— EVERYTHING is enormously difficult.

So, what does the system do? Too often, it responds by demanding that you show up somewhere that is hard to get to, dragging everything you own along because there is no safe place to leave it. You have to walk a long way, or wait for transportation that you might be unable to pay for—and don’t even think about trying to break the law against hitch-hiking. You have to get there on time, regardless of how hot or cold it is outside, or how much pain you may be having.

It Gets Worse

And then, too often, the system says you have to come back because, through no fault of your own, the system isn’t ready for you. Or it punishes you for not knowing you were supposed to show up, or insists on your attendance at some place far from the nearest food source and at the wrong time of day to make it back in time to eat or even worse, to sign up for a bed. And if you have one or more children to worry about, everything is exponentially more demanding.

It’s as if the system is deliberately and maliciously designed to crush the spirit and drain the last ounce of energy and hope from a person—and Austin is a model city, better than a lot of other American cities by many orders of magnitude. Imagine what hellish places some of them must be! Austin’s No Sit/No Lie ordinance is shining example of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act—and yet, even that hard-won, monumental victory has not succeeded in compelling the police to always do the right thing.

The Protect and Serve Survey results were sent, along with a cover letter written by Richard R. Troxell, to Austin’s City Manager, Police Chief, Mayor, Mayor Pro Tem, City Council members, Public Safety commissioners, Human Rights commissioners, and to the National Coalition for the Homeless— and future posts will have more to say about it.


Image by Picture 084

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The Road to Acceptance is Paved with Soap and Water

lava maeThe homepage of Lava Mae is a model of classic simplicity and clarity. “Mobile showers for the homeless,” it says, and lists the vital information front and center. On Wednesdays the San Francisco hygiene bus is parked at a women’s center; on Thursdays and Fridays at a venue in the fabled Tenderloin district; and on Saturdays at a resource center in the historic Mission district.

The bus has two bathrooms, with a sink, toilet, and shower in each. People sign up ahead of time for ten minute slots, and are assured a private and safe bathing experience. Lava Mae is a pun on the Spanish for “wash me,” and the official motto is “Delivering dignity, one shower at a time.” Founder Doniece Sandoval once told a reporter:

The United Nations states that access to clean water is a basic human right, but for many residents in our city, that is clearly not a reality. This is about restoring some of their dignity.

This was back in 2013, when Sandoval was working on design basics and figuring out where to get the money to turn her vision into reality. Her vision came from a street incident, when she walked past a young homeless woman who lamented out loud that she would never be clean again.

At the time, the Lava Mae crew reckoned it would cost as much as $100,000 to retrofit a single bus. San Francisco Municipal Transit donated one of its retired vehicles and committed to follow up with more if the pilot project worked out.

Lava Mae’s Origins

By year’s end, at least ten organizations were lending their support. (Currently, the Partners page lists quite a few more businesses and agencies who help in some way. The social networking site Twitter, for instance, donated laptop computers for the staff.)

An online crowdfunding campaign that aimed to raise $75,000 only made $58,000, but more donations came from other sources. At that time, the yearly budget was anticipated to be more than $300,000, and it was estimated that a top-performing bus could handle 500 showers a day. The opening date was projected as March 2014, and with astonishing optimism the group hoped to have four buses remodeled and operative by then, an ambition that sadly did not come true. The timetable had to be adjusted too, with the opening month moved to June.

Thanks to her day job in public relations, Sandoval had developed immense skill working with the media, as shown by the extensive collection of news articles featured on the Lava Mae site. Wired, Huffington Post, Al Jazeera, Washington Post, Newsweek, and Fast Company are only a few of the publications where stories appeared.

Started by Private Citizens

The words “started by private citizens” appear in the organization’s biography, and that concept is of primary importance. Sandoval and the other creators of Lava Mae are just regular people, and they want other regular people to understand how much is possible when problems are met with originality and determination. At the same time, they are eager to share their knowledge with anyone who is interested. The website says:

We’ve been contacted by groups and individuals across the globe – from Singapore to Sao Paulo, LA to Atlanta – who want to create a Lava Mae for their community.
We’re here to help. Our business plan, budget, best pracitces and insights are there for the asking. Let’s create a mobile revolution!

Reactions?

Source: “New Startup Hopes To Create Homeless Showers In Repurposed Muni Buses ,
Sfist.com, 04/29/13
Source: “Nonprofit Retrofits Buses as Mobile Showers for the Homeless,” TriplePundit.com, 10/18/13
Image by Lava Mae

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Housing First in Arlington, Virginia

 

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In a four-year period, the county of Arlington, Virginia, figured out how to house 100 families and about 300 chronically homeless adults, while at the same time saving the taxpayers a ton of money. In that neck of the woods, it costs about $45,000 a year for someone to “bounce between shelters, jail and hospital emergency rooms” as compared to $22,000 a year it takes to put them under a roof. As the saying goes, it’s a no-brainer. “Housing First” is the wave of the future.

People experiencing homelessness often have problems that contributed to their becoming homeless. But the Housing First philosophy says that in order to fix those other problems, they need a place to live as a base to work from. While detox programs and other facilities are available, and the pursuit of health is encouraged, imperfection is allowed. Even addicts, alcoholics, and the mentally ill are eligible for housing. For the Washington Post, Patricia Sullivan reports:

Arlington has a master spreadsheet that lists homeless individuals by name. The spreadsheet includes whether the people want housing, what health problems they have, their income sources and anything that might help or hinder their search for a home … One person takes responsibility for each name on the spreadsheet. They go line by line, brainstorming about which public and private treatment programs and funding can be tapped to help each homeless person.

The technique starts with data from the annual homeless count and more significantly, from “carefully cultivated contacts,” including staff at shelters and food distribution centers. The task force that meets monthly includes social services personnel from the county, health specialists, and advocates.

From Kathleen Sibert, who directs A-SPAN (Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network), the journalist learned the importance of “breaking down the silos,” which means ignoring agency divisions to draw on the expertise of everyone present, even if the needy individual does not directly qualify for benefits or aid from their particular agency.

One of the most important services is help with ID issues. After years or decades on the streets, documenting the fact that you exist can be a nightmare, and re-entry into society requires paperwork. 95 percent of the people helped over the last 4 years are said to be still in place. Some landed in jail, some were evicted, and some even found better places to live.

Next-Door Neighbors

Reportedly, the method followed in Arlington is scalable, and could work in much larger cities. Like Washington, D.C., perhaps, which is right down the road, and said to be “operating in crisis mode.” Apparently D.C. had a strong “Housing First” culture a couple of mayoral administrations back. Then things started to slip, but are now predicted to improve.

A lot of the problems homeless people have are the result of being homeless. They don’t want to be without ID, but sometimes stuff gets stolen. They don’t want to be hygienically challenged, but there is no place to wash up. They don’t want to lose teeth, but dentistry is a luxury beyond their wildest dreams. An awful lot of homeless people, once they have a place to live and a job, are indistinguishable from you or me. That’s because you and I, if we are like most Americans, are just a paycheck or two away from having the bottom drop out and seeing our worlds collapse.

Reactions?

Source: “Arlington’s no-silos approach has housed hundreds of chronically homeless adults,” WashingtonPost.com, 01/31/15
Source: “Bowser administration says DC ‘operating in crisis mode’ on homeless issue.” 
WashingtonPost.com, 01/30/15
Image by Cliff