In 2014, Jake Austin was volunteering with a group that, like many other organizations around the country, provided food, clothing, and other supplies for the homeless. Jake took over handing out hygiene items, but after doing this for a few weeks, he ran into an issue.
A man came to the table and I offered him soap and shampoo. He replied, "Thanks, but I have no where to use it". And it struck me, that I had been handing out hygiene supplies that had little to no potential of benefit as showers were not readily available to the homeless community.
Looking around, Jake spotted the truck being used to hand out hot meals and had a moment of insight: Why couldn’t they do the same for showers? It took two years of research and development to turn that idea into reality, but now Shower to the People! is providing a unique and innovative service that provides the homeless community around St. Louis, Missouri, with a lot more than a bar of soap.
Jake had the idea. All he was lacking was a truck, supplies, technical skills, and something called money.
I started sketching out plans and tried to make a match between the sorts of vehicles that I thought would be appropriate for the project, and the (non-existent) budget I had. After a few months of scrounging craigslist I found our box truck (1998 GMC W4500 box truck previously used as a MATCO Tool Truck) listed at $5,000. I approached the owner and asked if he would kindly donate to the cause. And, he said no. I then asked if he would be willing to hold the truck for 30 days, during which time I would raise the $5,000 to buy the truck outright. He agreed.
Where did Jake find the funding to get the truck? Like so many these days, he discovered that social media can be far more than a place where people trade baby pictures and political insults. Turning to his Facebook page, he launched a campaign that started with his own friends and spread out from there. Well before the deadline, 30 to 40 people had provided enough funds to go back to the original owner and purchase the truck.
That was the first step.
A chance conversation led to a connection with Apache Village RV. Though neither Jake nor the people at Apache Village had ever seen a “shower truck,” they tackled the project immediately. The RV center installed two showers, sinks, flooring, heating, air conditioning, all the plumbing, and the owners of Apache Village RV picked up the tab.
They were far from the last to contribute to the project. Donors Lois Stitch and John Gialouris provided the money for the critical (and costly) generator. Part of Lois Stitch’s contributions came in a unique, if heartbreaking, way. With her own death pending, she asked that rather than sending flowers for the funeral, her friends and family contribute to Jake’s growing project.
The last big piece of the truck came when local businessman Sid Ambort donated a commercial grade tankless propane water heater powerful enough to keep the hot water flowing for long periods. Now the project had a truck, with a generator, heat, sinks, and showers. It was missing just one big thing—water.
While an ordinary RV can pack enough water for a few fast showers, providing the amount of water the Shower to the People! truck needed was going to take access to a supply, and there aren’t exactly handy RV parks with standard connections in the middle of the city. Where to turn for plumbing expertise? Union workers! Local 562 of the Pipefitters Union turned the truck into a project for their apprenticeship program and installed not just the water lines, but the propane lines. The plumbing has some special features. It allows the truck to be connected to an ordinary hydrant, and has the necessary valves and fittings to step down the pressure to appropriate levels.
Jake himself added the finishing touches—shower doors, hand rails, curtains, soap pumps, trim, etc. It took a month to make sure that the truck was much more than just a water spout on wheels, but an environment where people would feel welcome and comfortable. The final result was much more than anyone might have expected when the project began.
But even the best looking truck wasn’t ready to roll without more volunteers and without funds to make day-to-day operations possible. In 2015, Jake got together with FOCUS North America, a movement of Orthodox Christians that focuses on sustainable solutions for those in poverty. FOCUS is involved in more than 50 programs across America.
By that time several groups had offered to help and Wells Fargo had come through with a $15,000 grant, but Jake had a special reason for going with FOCUS.
Focus North America was one of many organizations that wanted to get involved with Shower To The People, I ended up choosing to partner with them because, while they are a faith based organization, they aren't the stereotypical "sermon and a sandwich" group. There are a lot of redundant services working in the homeless community, many of which are more about promoting a religious message than providing to untended needs. Focus on the other hand, is committed (as are we) to providing "lasting solutions that bring people from dependency to self-sufficiency". Though their organization is deeply rooted in Christian faith, their work is on meeting the immediate needs of the community.
By pairing with FOCUS, Jake was able to quit his day job and still provide for his family while devoting himself full time to Shower To The People. With everything in place, the Shower To the People truck rolled out for its first day on the streets on May 26, 2016.
Shower To the People is just getting started in delivering services and is still in the testing phase. In just the first two days on the road, they helped more than 50 people. Once they’re up and running at full speed, they expect to provide showers to 60 people each day. More than 200 foundations, businesses, and individuals have donated time, money, or materials to bring the project this far.
Currently Shower to the People is looking for new locations and adding more staff to keep the truck up, out, and running. They’re hoping to raise the funds for a second truck for St. Louis (roughly $45,000) that would provide both showers and mobile, free laundry services. They’re also working to find a different water source for those winter days when it’s too cold to open a hydrant.
Nick Chakos, the CEO of FOCUS North America, adds that they’d very much like to take this project beyond St. Louis.
FOCUS has operations in 50 cities across America and mobile shower units are in great demand at each location. We would love to build a national network of Shower to the People trucks providing these vital services everywhere that FOCUS works. We also receive many phone calls each month from people asking FOCUS to come to their town and offer services. I believe that we can start to work in new cities by bringing Shower To The People to any town in the nation. It’s a great way to encourage volunteerism among city residents while providing humanizing services to people in need.
Shower to the People is a perfect program in every sense – simple in design, easy to implement, and it addresses a critical need that is completely overlooked. Cities nationwide struggle to provide hygiene services to their homeless populations. This lack of basic services in turn causes tension among the homeless, local officials, business owners, and residents. Shower to the People not only helps the homeless by giving them showers, but it’s also a reliable service for cities and towns, helping them to care for a disadvantaged segment of the population in an innovative way. When people have access to basic hygiene services, they’ll be less inclined to rely on public facilities – libraries, parks, etc. for their basic needs.
If you’ve ever experienced a prolonged power or water outage, you know just how quickly a hot shower moves from something you do without thought, to something that you really desire, to a desperate need. Think about the people who are on the street who have no access to showers for weeks or months at a time. Think about how difficult it would be to just get through the day without a place to wash, shave, and clean up—and how difficult it would be to get and keep any sort of job.
A truck with a couple of shower stalls … it’s not a small thing for the people receiving the service, or for those providing it.
Shower to the People is inspirational because of the immediacy of the results it brings. It’s metaphorical in so many ways – you see someone enter the shower truck dirty, disheveled, and distressed. They come out fresh, renewed, smiling, and ready to take on the challenges in their lives. From that one shower, we build a strong connection, and a sense of trust, with the homeless. It’s amazing that something so simple can have such a refreshing impact on physical, emotional and even economic renewal.
Many thanks to Jake and to Nick for answering many questions and providing the information for this article.
Both Jake and FOCUS are also involved in “Raise the Bar,” a social enterprise that employs members of Focus North America's transitional house to make soap used both on the shower truck, and for sale to the community. Profits from these sales help to fund Raise the Bar and Shower to the People.
The end goal is not to have a city of clean people who experience homelessness, but to move those we serve from dependency to self-sufficiency. This requires far more resources, and skills than Shower To The People is capable of providing. In acknowledgment of this, Shower To The People is building a referral network in hopes of finding collaborative ways in which to connect those experiencing homelessness to the services they need.