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.
“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.”
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.
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