Henry Penner opening the Refresh Mobile Showers trailer. (YouTube screenshot)

Topics: Ethical Living | Society

Abbotsford churchgoer starts free mobile shower trailer

Henry Penner says the service has been used more than 600 times since last May

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For the past several months, those who are homeless or just in need of a hot shower in one city in B.C.’s lower mainland have been able to snag one for free, thanks to one entrepreneurial Mennonite.

Since May, Henry Penner, who attends King Road Mennonite Brethren Church in Abbotsford, has operated a mobile shower trailer along with other volunteers to give anyone interested a chance to refresh. 

Similar initiatives in the U.S. inspired Penner to start Refresh Mobile Showers, he says. He also felt a strong religious conviction to tackle the project. 

“I talked to people in the community, and then they definitely echoed that there was a need for it,” he says.

The church, local businesses and individuals helped him raise the $35,000 needed to buy the trailer and have it shipped to Abbotsford. 

May 1, 2019 marked the first shower. Since then, the service has been used 617 times, Penner says.

The trailer is driven to a cold-weather shelter on Mondays, another local Mennonite Brethren church on Wednesdays, and the Mennonite Central Committee Centre on Thursdays. 

Access to a hot shower usually coincides with a free meal or offer of clean clothing from another local organization. 

“For de-escalation of any problems that could arise, we have Angels who work alongside the local police department,” says Penner. “These are women who have themselves lived on the street and understand the culture of the homeless. In addition, we will often have a student nurse come and attend to minor cuts and bruises of the people accessing the mobile shower. Refresh Mobile Shower works alongside of the City of Abbotsford inter-agency care team, which is a group of professionals including nurses, social & outreach workers.”

Henry Penner, (fifth from left), with Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun (fourth from left) city councillors, City of Abbotsford Housing and Homelessness Coordinator Dena Kae Beno (second from right) and supporters of the shower trailer project. (Photo courtesy Henry Penner)

Penner says users seem happy about the chance to get clean. 

“Virtually nothing but positive [feedback],” he says. “‘Thank you,’ ‘God bless you,’ ‘it’s a wonderful thing you do.’”

City councillor Ross Siemens, who chairs Abbotsford’s homelessness action advisory committee, says city service providers can’t force people to take shelter, even if the weather is severe.

“So we’ve recognized that the only way that we can have any meaningful impact with people who are experiencing homelessness and other related mental health issues is to build relationships,” he says. 

He says that when Penner approached the city with his idea, officials thought it would be one effective way to build those relationships. 

“Henry came forward, and said, ‘I feel if I haven’t had a shower and I’m cold and wet, I just don’t feel I’m in my right space.’” 

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Siemens estimates that there are about 250 people designated “homeless” in Abbotsford, although the true number is likely higher because it doesn’t include those who may be couch surfing. In 2019, Abbotsford-Mission’s rental vacancy rate was 1.1 percent, one of the lowest in the country. 

Siemens says he knows of a number of initiatives aimed at tackling the housing issue, including a provincially funded modular housing project, one for Indigenous people at risk of homelessness, and a program that helps youth aging out of foster care learn to live independently. 

The trailer is available for two hours at a time. Penner likes the idea of expanding its hours and locations, but says a volunteer-run operation makes that difficult. King Road still invites donations for operational costs.

Siemens says the city is open to helping make the service available on a more regular basis, but wants to make sure that people are using it.

“We’re tracking the numbers, making sure that it is meaningful,” he says. “Is this actually a touchpoint where we can actually build relationships and get these people into shelter and into housing and into care that they need?”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated on Jan. 25, 2020 to reflect more of the services that are offered alongside the mobile showers.

Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.

Emma Prestwich is Broadview's digital editor.

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  • says:

    I remember the days of the Harrison Baths and Pool in downtown Toronto. Men and women could bath and shower for free (later for a small fee). Sadly, to "clean up" the nature of the facilities (apparently people didn't like the homeless getting cleaned), the baths and showers are gone, just the pool remains.
    For those who think "Christians" don't have anything to contribute to our society, or are no longer relevant, reread the article.

  • says:

    fantastic you should have a go fund me page to acquire three more showering services. It also needs bathrooms in the new ones. I cannot shower without a pee. Where can we donate.

    Replies

    • says:

      Hi Pat, I love your response to this story. Suggesting the bathroom be added because "I cannot shower without a pee" This speaks to how we can so easily identify with the homeless person especially regarding showers and toilets. We can see ourselves on the street and in need of these simple things. I remember we were asked to donate to 1st Mission in Vancouver for showers. Because we could all feel the need for showers our small congregation easily raised over $24,000.