A mobile bathing unit is bringing a measure of hygiene — and dignity — to the city’s homeless
There have been many early mornings when 23-year-old Victoria Cooke scaled the fence of an apartment complex to sneak into the pool area. At 5 or 6 a.m., apartment staff wouldn’t be there yet, leaving Cooke alone to do one thing she missed while living on the streets: shower. Never a full shower — she would keep her bathing suit on while lathering up. But at least it was something. “It really makes a difference,” she says.
For the homeless, getting clean can be a master class in creativity. If they can get away with it, some use bathroom sinks in hotels, casinos, or restaurants. Other options include secretly using someone’s garden hose, or, as Cooke has done a few times, golf course sprinklers. “I’ve also been able to convince random guys to let me use their showers,” she adds. “But it doesn’t feel safe. They are usually really creepy.”
Emergency shelters do have showers for clients. However, some living on the streets don’t always feel comfortable in such places, whether it’s because they are transgender or because they don’t like the open, locker-room shower setup.
Fortunately, options recently increased with the arrival of Southern Nevada’s only mobile shower unit for the homeless, created by the nonprofit Clean the World. “This makes a difference,” says Kevin Williams, the mobile hygiene manager. “You can see their demeanor when they go in and how they are kind of mopey. Once they come out, (their demeanor) changes.”
Outside the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada one recent day, Williams sits under a canopy near the shower unit, checking in clients. When it’s their turn, he hands each a clean towel and a hygiene kit — a bar of soap, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, and a toothbrush — and directs them to a stall. After each use, Williams or one of the other workers does a quick wipe-down before calling in the next person.
Clean the World is an international organization that collects discarded hygiene items donated from hotels, such as unused bars of soap or bottles of shampoo and conditioner. Local donor Las Vegas Sands Corp. approached Clean the World about opening a mobile hygiene unit; it launched in late August and is funded for three years.
The unit, hauled behind a semi, has four private rooms, each with a bathroom, sink, and shower that holds 80 gallons of water. It’s not just a shower, but a hot shower in a private bathroom that clients can use for up to 20 minutes. It’s an unimaginable luxury for a homeless person. “Not everyone takes up all the time, but some do,” Williams says. “When it was hot, oftentimes people would come just so they could escape the heat.”
The shower keeps operating until all the clients are served or it runs out of water. Williams says if he had access to a water supply and a place to dump the water onsite (he has been discarding the water at a mobile trailer park) he could serve even more people. It takes about 15 minutes to fill up the 320 gallons of water the unit goes through.
Clean the World’s trailer was first going out three days a week, then increased to five days a week in January. Each week, the organization partners with a nonprofit to host the mobile unit one day of the week. The only thing the nonprofit has to do is provide clean towels.
Williams has already seen the impact of the service. “When this first started, the showers would be black with dirt afterward,” he says. “They aren’t as dirty anymore now that people have access to this regularly.”
Williams says some 2,300 people used the mobile unit in its first few months. Even a spell of persistent rainfall and 40 degree weather on one Tuesday morning in January didn’t prevent people from coming out to “the courtyard,” an empty lot next to Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, where many who are homeless gather. Nearly 50 signed up to take advantage of the shower. “If we had two vans, some days I could do 100 people easily,” Williams says.
Cooke spent a year on the streets before getting arrested for shoplifting and being placed in a group home. In addition to a safe place to sleep, finding somewhere to shower was always an issue. “If something like this would have existed when I was homeless, I think things would have been different for me,” she says.
Steve Gross, 55, has been homeless on and off for three years, which started after his mother died and he stopped working. “I just got depressed,” he says. “I got lazy, too, I’m not going to lie.”
Living in the homeless corridor, he tried to keep the bare minimum of hygienic standards, using the bathrooms of establishments that let him in. Now he uses the shower unit at least once a week.
Increasing access to hygiene and cleanliness helps fend off health issues, outreach workers say. Around town last year, the City of Las Vegas installed 24-hour Porta-Potties and hand-washing stations. “Each Porta-Potty holds about 60 gallons of waste, and we have eight of them, cleaned seven days a week, so that impact is significant,” says Margaret Kurtz, a city spokeswoman. “That waste otherwise would presumably be on the nearby properties.”
In San Diego, hygiene stations were put in place in 2017 to combat an outbreak of hepatitis A in the homeless community. “We have not had a hepatitis A outbreak like other communities,” Kurtz adds. “We believe (that’s) because we have had these interim measures in place since March 2017, and the community has other services available to help.” Williams says influenza has been going around Southern Nevada, and hand-washing stations and showers could help keep it out of homeless camps.
But health benefits are just one aspect. A hot shower can also provide dignity. “We’ve noticed people are more willing to talk with social services once they’ve gotten a shower,” says Emily Paulsen, executive director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance. “That makes sense. Think about how you feel after you get a shower.” Every Tuesday, the organization hosts the mobile unit in “the courtyard.” “It’s by far our busiest day,” Williams says.
Periodically, the group brings in other social-service agencies, mental-health services, and general resources that homeless people can access. Williams notes that people use the showers before job interviews. “I think this is going a long way,” he says.
As much as access to showers is a challenge for anyone who is homeless, it can be even more of a task for homeless transgender people. For seven months, Blue Montana lived on the streets of San Diego. It was hard finding facilities willing to accept him and his husband.
Even if the facility allowed them to stay for the evening, being transgender made Montana fearful about taking a shower. “Especially if I was being stealth,” he said. “If a trans person has all (the gender markers) on their ID changed and is placed in a shelter that matches, a shower could out them as trans and potentially get them kicked out. Or if (trans people) take a shower and what people are seeing doesn’t match a person’s gender identity, it could put them in an unsafe situation.”
As a result, sometimes trans people who are homeless might opt not to shower in traditional facilities, let alone access many homeless services. A private shower takes away that anxiety. Montana is now the trans program manager at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center. On average, he sees two or three trans people a day in the center, all of whom face problems similar to the ones he once dealt with in San Diego.
He learned of the mobile unit last year, and worked to bring it to the center on Fridays. On its first day, some 17 people showed up, not all of them LGBT. It’s grown since. “If all I do is have to provide clean towels, that’s a small price to pay,” Montana says.
Showers are just one element that helps people on the streets find dignity. When she heard about the hygiene unit coming to the Center, hair stylist Jasmine Farro loaded up her gear and came to help as well. “I live down the street, in a low-income area, so I think this is awesome they are doing this,” she says.
While people wait for a shower, Farro offers free haircuts, something she hopes to do at least every other Friday. Even a simple buzzcut to someone’s outgrown hair can make a difference in how they’re treated. “I know that as a society, we judge people based on appearance,“ she says. “A hot shower and a fresh haircut can change someone’s life. It can give them a fresh start.”