Shower to the People puts hygiene on wheels

“We make kitchens mobile—why can’t we make showers mobile?”

Jake Austin, founder and program director of Shower to the People, has always been involved in volunteering. He follows in the footsteps of his parents, who’ve run a soup kitchen for almost 20 years.

Austin had the idea for Shower to the People, an organization that operates a shower truck for St. Louis’s homeless community, a year and a half ago when he was volunteering for another non-profit. He had a realization when a local salon donated a nice bottle of shampoo.

“I was real excited about giving out this nice shampoo. A gentleman walked up to the table and he said, ‘Thank you very much, but I’ve got nowhere to use it,’” Austin said. “It just struck me at that moment, what am I doing? I’m giving out all this shampoo and soap and stuff, not just ignorant but oblivious to the fact that people have nowhere to use it.”

Austin, who’s married and has three children under five years old, now works full-time on Shower to the People. He got permission from the city of St. Louis to hook up to its fire hydrants and to drain into its street drains.

The shower truck has been on the streets one to two days a week, as the organization has been in a testing phase with the city, but soon the truck will be out four or five days each week. Shower to the People provides an average of about 50 showers each day.

The vast majority of Shower to the People’s funding comes from individual donations. The amount it costs to provide six showers is $10. Austin explained that he has seen a deluge of positive feedback—about 2,000 emails—over the past few weeks as people have learned about the organization.

f3e54d_0a9b813d39154a418c4bff3fc64592a1Austin said that he continually sees people come to the truck in bad spirits and leave transformed.

“It’s important because you have people who might be suffering through a whole host of issues—mental health or substance abuse, financial issues—and any of those issues quickly become more intensified and compounded when you have to also deal with not being clean and how that affects your health, how that affects your emotional wellbeing,” he said.

Austin also hopes that Shower to the People will remedy one of the primary causes and effects of homelessness: isolation. He hopes that Shower to the People will help foster a sense of community.

“People are a lot more isolated when they haven’t bathed in a month or two months,” he explained. “They’re a lot less likely to connect to others around them.”

Shower to the People operates two programs in addition to the shower truck: Raise the Bar and the Referral Network.

Raise the Bar, which will launch this fall, will team up with a local soapmaker and employ formerly homeless individuals to make soap. Some of the soap will be used on the shower truck, and the rest will be sold to sustainably fund Raise the Bar. Austin hopes that having work experience at Raise the Bar will help people get full-time jobs down the line.

The Referral Network is designed to connect individuals who use the shower truck with other homeless service providers. Shower to the People gathers information on people so it can best match them with other services they may need.

Shower to the People is made up of Austin, Volunteer Coordinator David Draper, and a team of volunteers. The organization operates as part of FOCUS North America, a national non-profit.

In light of the program’s success in St. Louis, Shower to the People is hoping to expand to other cities. Plans are underway for Indianapolis, and Austin is aiming for the program to be in 20 cities by the end of 2020.

“People all over the world, every continent except Antarctica, are asking, ‘Can we do this here? Can you help me do this in my city?’” he said. “It’s been humbling and overwhelming and exciting.”

Reena Karasin is a freelance reporter for Spare Change News.

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