Staying human through hygiene while houseless

April 7, 2015
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Living houseless in an urban environment requires personal savvy and logistic skill. Days are often an endless series of searches, lines, and waits: finding the next meal, a safe place to sleep, a public restroom.

Here at PHLUSH, we see toilet availability as a human right and advocate for building urban public restrooms that serve everybody. In recent years, strong and smart organizations that collaborate with and serve homeless citizens to meet basic hygiene needs have emerged in other large west coast cities.  We applaud the work of Lava Mae in San Francisco and Girls Think Tank in San Diego.

Lava Mae has put toilets and showers on wheels in San Francisco.

Lava Mae's busses with bathrooms serve San Francisco's unhoused.

Lava Mae’s busses with bathrooms serve San Francisco’s unhoused.

“There are only seven locations in the City of San Francisco where if you are homeless you can go to take a shower” says founder Doniece Sandoval. “You’re looking at 16 to 20 shower stalls for the 3,500 people who actually live in the streets. And that’s untenable. And I just thought, if you can put gourmet food on wheels and take it anywhere, why not toilets and showers?”As the local transit agency MUNI was replacing older, diesel-powered buses, Sandoval investigated and discovered that they had a donation program, applied, and was successful. People thought she was crazy but loved the idea and promised to back her up if Lava Mae could get it done.

Retrofitting a passenger bus to accommodate two full bathrooms is not easy. Architect/Designer Brett Terpeluk stepped on board to help figure it out. Residential hot-water heaters were installed to hook up with water supplied from fire hydrants. Grey water from showers is treated with an eco-friendly cleaner and disinfectant called Vital Oxide and then can be drained into sidewalk catch basins. Black water from toilets is picked up by a waste water hauling company. Consequently, the bus does not need to transport heavy tanks.

Today, the first Lava Mae bus is bringing bathrooms to the streets four days a week in collaboration with local agencies and volunteers from every walk of life. And with activists in other cities clamoring to do the same, they have issued a Hygiene Starter Kit, which walks others through their first steps as they hone operations and their extremely promising model.

Personal hygiene makes all the difference in whether a person can attend to business, look for work, go to class, and the like. After a shower, you need a change of clothes, and this implies you have some place to keep them. The vast majority of North America’s homeless, however, must haul around everything they own – birth certificates, IDs, and keepsakes as well as clothes. Keeping their belongings safe is a constant worry. An individual who walks into an employment. interview carrying their worldly possessions is just not likely to get hired.

Girls Think Tank has been making storage available in San Diego.

“Without free storage I would have to find a grocery cart, chain my things to a street light pole and pray that they were safe,” says a formerly homeless individual who was able to get off the streets thanks in part to the Transitional Storage Center.

In 2012, Girls Think Tank (GTT) took over operation of the Center located at 252 16th Street, San Diego. Since then, the nonprofit has expanded capacity to allow 353 homeless individuals to safely store their belongings for free. Their items are kept safe and secure throughout the week eliminating the hassle and stress of carting their lives on their backs.  And by keeping belongings off of the streets, the Center serves not only people without houses but also the business community and housed residents who share San Diego streets

Possessions are safe at the Transitional Storage Center

Possessions are safe at the Transitional Storage Center operated by San Diego’s Girls Think Tank.

“When I spend time at the Center, I am constantly reminded that every “homeless person” is an individual with a unique story,” says GTT Executive Director Heather Pollock. “I see men put on their hardhats and get ready to go to their construction job. I watch students digging through their bins to pull out textbooks and binders. I observe mothers with their children, getting their kids ready for the evening. These are people like you and me, who, due to unforeseeable and unfortunate events, are now living their lives without a safe place to call home. These bins aid individuals in their transition off the streets, and offer a service that no other program in San Diego provides.”

The Transitional Storage Center is at 252 16th Street on property owned by the San Diego Housing Commission. Two full time staff have themselves experienced homelessness and take pride in the way the Center serves its customers.  The Center is open weekdays from 7 to 11am and from 4:30 – 7:30pm and on Saturday mornings from 8am until noon. Operations cost approximately $1 per bin per day. GTT receives support for operations from the City of San Diego, the Anthony Robbins Foundation, Harbor Presbyterian Church, Downtown Fellowship of Churches and Ministries, Jerome’s, Ace Parking and individual donors.

The testimonies of those who have used the Center speak to the importance of this program. A student at City College said, “I can wear clean clothes to school knowing my personal belongings are safe and secure.” A job seeker said the Center “allows me to use the library which doesn’t allow large bags, and to interview, to look professional and ‘un-homeless’.” An under-employed security guard said “I can ride the bus and go look for a better job… Now, I feel like a real citizen of San Diego.”

PHLUSH is grateful to Matthew Eisen and Heather Pollock of Girls Think Tank and to the folks at Lava Mae for their vision and for their collaboration on this piece.

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    1. […] story that caught my eye was Staying Human Through Hygiene While Houseless.  This details a San Francisco project to bring restrooms and showers to homeless people aboard a […]

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    Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human (PHLUSH) was founded in Portland, Oregon and today collaborates with groups across North America.

    PHLUSH is a member of the World Toilet Organization and a partner in the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance.

    Our Mission Through education and advocacy, PHLUSH helps local governments and citizen groups to provide equitable public restroom availability and to prepare for a pipe-breaking seismic event with appropriate ecological toilet systems.

    Our Vision Toilet availability is a human right and well-designed sanitation systems restore health to our cities, our waters and our soils.

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