People can line up to rinse off in a truck making its way through St. Louis.
Twice a week in St. Louis, at around 5 p.m., a line begins to form in front of a truck. The people waiting are all homeless. Most haven’t had a shower in over a month, but that’s what awaits them when they reach the front of the line.
Since it officially launched in May, the Shower to the People truck has been making its way around St. Louis, docking in various locations on Monday and Thursday evenings. The project’s founder, Jake Austin, says that in a typical five-hour shift, as many as 50 people queue up for a shower, and they’re able to accommodate all of them. By the end of August, Austin hopes to expand services to four nights a week, and stretch the shifts out to eight hours.
In 2014, Austin was volunteering with the homeless population in St. Louis, sitting behind a table and handing out supplies—mostly food, but occasionally soap and shampoo. As Austin passed out the toiletries, one man thanked him, but said he had nowhere to actually put them to use. While the homeless shelters in St. Louis are equipped with showers, they’re usually only open to official residents of the shelters, as opposed to those who may drop in to use the amenities. According to the most recent tally from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, around 17 percent of the homeless population in Missouri is unsheltered; they make use of public fountains and sinks in libraries and parks, or wash in the river, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The fundamental necessity of a shower is something often overlooked when considering the needs of the homeless. Austin, speaking to the Post-Dispatch, described how “people can get food and clothes, but if they haven’t had a shower in three months, they can’t get a job even flipping burgers.”
Development on Shower to the People moved swiftly once Austin landed on the concept. Mirroring the mobile-unit model he’d worked with while distributing food and other resources, Austin envisioned a truck containing two shower stalls and two sinks. He found the vehicle—a 1998 GMC box truck—and turned to social media to raise the $5,000 necessary to buy it. When he trundled the massive unit to an RV center outside of St. Louis to see about outfitting it with amenities and plumbing, the dealer, upon hearing Austin’s plan, offered to do it for free.
But Austin knew that if Shower to the People was going to take off, he’d need a stronger base than just a truck. In October, Austin partnered with FOCUS North America, a Christian nonprofit connected with a wide network of homeless-service providers, job-training organizations, and transitional houses operating in 10 U.S. cities.
“The program isn’t just about getting people clean,” Austin says. “We’re doing this with the hopes of building relationships with people, connecting them with services, and getting them off the streets.”
Hence keeping the number of shower stalls in the truck at two.
“You know, as word has gotten out about this, I’ve had people tell me I should get a bigger trailer to move people through quicker, maybe get 10 showers going at a time,” Austin says.
He understands the logic, but Austin actually wants people waiting in line. “It gives us time to talk to people,” he says. Shower to the People volunteers, many of whom are social workers, circulate through the crowds, learning about peoples’ circumstances, asking about their needs. So far, it’s been effective: Austin says the volunteers have connected several people with transitional living options, and brought others to renew their drivers licenses so they can apply for jobs and benefits.
But Austin is sensitive to the truck’s surroundings. He’s working closely with local government and St. Louis neighborhood associations to assess the response to the truck in various locations. “Most complaints have to do with concerns about large groups of people congregating,” Austin says. In an effort to maximize impact and choose the neighborhoods best-suited to Shower to the People, Austin structures the truck’s route around where other organizations already have a presence: He’ll park in front of a homeless shelter, or tag along with another mobile unit distributing food and clothes.
The wait for a shower, Austin says, “gets real sometimes.” Temperatures in St. Louis have been sweltering recently, and he’s witnessed a handful of fights break out in line. “It’s a learning curve,” Austin says. “What people don’t realize is that when you have something like a soup kitchen that people have to come to, they’re entering your world: You set the boundaries and the protocol. Whereas we’re literally entering their world, and we want to be respectful of that.”
But on a quiet night recently, Austin was preparing to pack up the truck when a woman showed up alone. She hadn’t showered in two months, and had a painful-looking rash across her skin. She was nervous about missing the cutoff, Austin says, but he told her “look, you can go in there and take as much time as you want. You deserve this.” He wandered off and let her have the truck to herself. When he came back in 20 minutes, she was still in there, and singing. “It was this old church hymn, and it was just surreal and hauntingly beautiful,” Austin says. “With the truck, we’re trying to do so much more than get people clean. But at that moment, I thought that if all I did was bring someone that kind of peace, that was enough.”
Austin’s got more planned. With its just-announced 20 by 2020 initiative, Shower to the People is aiming to launch 20 more trucks in cities across the U.S. within the next three years. “I did the math, and that’s one truck every four months,” Austin says. Just like with his first venture, it all has to start with the trucks. “If we could get some companies to step up and donate a vehicle, that would be 75 percent of the battle,” Austin says.