Most of us take for granted that we can have a hot shower pretty much anytime we like. But for people without a home, such basic personal hygiene can be a rare luxury. Now, in Ashland, community groups have come together to create a solution that meets the simple human need for cleanliness with dignity and compassion.
On a sunny spring afternoon, a gleaming white trailer sits in the parking lot behind the Ashland Food Bank. When Leigh Madsen is asked what’s going on, a huge smile creases his face.
Leigh Madsen: “What we have here is a dream come true, Liam.”
Madsen heads the Ashland Community Resource Center, a non-profit agency that works to relieve poverty and homelessness. The refurbished 27-foot-long trailer was formerly used by front-line crews fighting wild land fires. Now, it’s providing hot showers and clean laundry to homeless Ashland residents. Madsen says it’s filling a fundamental need.
Leigh Madsen: “Imagine what it would be like to wear the same clothes, the same underwear, the same socks for two-three weeks at a time and never be able to wash your clothes or take a bath.”
Madsen says lack of access to basic hygiene facilities can help keep people trapped in a cycle of homelessness.
Leigh Madsen: “As far as being able to get jobs, as far as being able to stand in line at the supermarket and buy food, having a shower’s important. And if we really look at health, especially children’s health, children’s health is hugely degraded when they’re not able to get clean.”
Volunteer Sangye Tendzin is in charge of getting the facility set up to operate. He proudly gives me a tour, leading me into the back door of the trailer past two stacked washer/dryers chugging away.
Sangye Tendzin: “We have an on-demand propane water heater, the biggest we could get. And what it does is to supply on-demand hot water to all the outlets, laundry sink, the two laundries, the four lavatories and the two showers.”
The right side of the trailer opens up like an awning to reveal a bank of bathroom sinks and mirrors.
Sangye Tendzin: “We have these four lavatories that have soap dispensers, electrical for if someone wants to charge something, or shave with electric, they can do that here. But we have this on-demand hot water … that fast. It’s hot.”
Folks with backpacks are lining up for their turn. One fellow named Steve says it’s his first opportunity to take a hot shower in weeks.
Steve: “This is just wonderful that they’re doing this. (Liam: It’s gotta feel good) Oh, yes, it does! It’s excellent. After that long of a time, it feels really good!”
Leigh Madsen says generous donors came forward to pay for the trailer, to help beef it up and to get it ready for service. He says the Holiday Inn Express across the street even offered to launder the used towels.
Leigh Madsen: “So the community has really come together to help make this dream a possibility, in big ways.”
Still, he says, even in Ashland – with its progressive reputation -- homeless people routinely encounter attitudes and laws that make their already-difficult lives unnecessarily harder.
Leigh Madsen: “Societally, we have made everyday living illegal. You can’t sleep on the streets of Ashland. You can’t even put down a blanket if you’re homeless. You can’t go to the bathroom anytime, because all of the public restrooms in town close as soon as it’s dark. The public restrooms that are in restaurants and hotels aren’t available to the homeless people.”
And as housing gets less affordable for many lower-income families, Madsen says, more people could find themselves in that squeeze. He says making basic hygiene available gives those who are struggling a hand up toward getting back on their feet.