Sunnyvale Welcomes Mobile Showers for the Homeless

Taking a shower may seem more like a routine than a privilege. But for people living on the streets, a safe place to wash is hard to find.

“If you’re homeless in Sunnyvale, there’s no place at all,” says Julie Lang, who works for the homeless nonprofit Downtown Streets Team. At least not year-round.

But that’s about to change. Next week, Peninsula-based nonprofit Dignity on Wheels will launch a mobile shower and laundry service for the homeless at Trinity Church of Sunnyvale.

The trailer equipped with showers, washers and dryers and private bathrooms will be the first of its kind in Santa Clara County. The first of many, Lang adds.

Similar efforts have rolled out elsewhere, including San Francisco, where a nonprofit called Lava Mae has converted defunct Muni buses into shower stalls for the homeless.

WeHOPE founders Cheryl and Paul Bain.

WeHOPE founders Cheryl and Paul Bain.

Dignity on Wheels began last year as an extension of the Project WeHOPE homeless shelter in Redwood City. The program’s success convinced Project WeHOPE’s husband-and-wife founders, Cheryl and Paul Bains, to expand southward with help from Trinity Church and the Downtown Streets Team.

Santa Clara County is home to 4,627 homeless people without shelter, according to a 2015 point-in-time homeless census. That’s a conservative estimate, officials say, but still one of the highest populations of unsheltered homeless in the nation.

Currently, only three locations in the entire county offer showers to the homeless, but limit them to certain days.

“Imagine that you wake up on the cold, hard ground and you have to get on the bus that’s crowded and late and you have to go find a place to shower,” Lang says. “Maybe there aren’t any. Imagine that you have to go across the city to get food somewhere and to another point to work on your benefits. You could spend a whole day just trying to get food and, if you’re lucky, clean up.”

Lang, who helps find jobs and housing for her clients through Downtown Streets Team, says the lack of hygiene can be especially troubling for women. One of the homeless women she works with got slapped with a misdemeanor charge for pilfering tampons from a grocery store late one night.

“She was so desperate,” Lang says. “It was late at night. She couldn’t call a case manager. But that’s the situation people live with when they don’t have access to something as basic as a place to clean up”

Dignity on Wheels will provide up to 30 showers and 14 single loads of laundry a day with this one trailer. Organizers have put a call for donations of towels, toiletries, sandals and sweats.

“Something as simple as a hot shower and clean clothes can help restore hope and dignity,” says Greg Pensinger, who works with Lang for Downtown Streets Team.

County Supervisor Joe Simitian will speak at the project’s ribbon-cutting, which takes place at 10am Tuesday at Trinity Church, 477 Mathilda Ave., in Sunnyvale.

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

14 Comments

  1. Downtown Streets in San Jose has been criticized by their homeless clients for providing gift cards (donated by merchants) instead of cash. Despite a contract with the City of San Jose (which requires minimum wage), they fail to pay the required minimum wage. Their San Jose clients have become serfs with little opportunity to escape homelessness.

    By contrast, Salvation Army published longitudinal studies show much more effective outcomes at substantially less public cost.

    A more important question is enabling homelessness. Public feeding, portable showers, clothing donations, etc. enable homelessness. Social worker professionals complain that these offerings, while well-intentioned, negate welfare check efforts that are essential to assess, deliver needed services, and treat homelessness.

    • Salvation army has discrimination written into their mission. No thanks. No more red buckets for me

      • The Salvation Army is a private organization.

        The fact that they don’t embrace or support every pandering, self-destructive social theory that the government centric collectivists swallow does not make them guilty of “discrimination”.

        It’s called embracing morality and exercising free will.

        The Salvation Army is my “go to charity’ whenever I have an occasion to make a charitable donation.

        I really love the Salvation Army Band in the Rose Parade.

        • “Occasion to”? You make charitable needs seem so trivial.
          Due to poverty in my family in my youth, I often went a week or more without a shower. I’ll spare you the details of how I felt physically and emotionally.
          Thank GOD someone came up with this as it does matter who. Quit criticize good deeds as that is all that matters. Pay it forward!!!

          • > Due to poverty in my family in my youth, I often went a week or more without a shower.

            Gee! I feel guilty.

            But I guess that was your point.

            I hope you are taking showers more frequently now.

            Call me selfish and judgemental, but I am providing showers for people who I actually believe are more deserving of showers then you. My children.

            Call me judgemental again, but I think your parents should have done the same.

    • The purpose of the Downtown Streets Team is to get the clients ready to get back to work so they can be successful…the gift cards is to assist the clients with necessities…maybe before you start criticizing you should go to the one of the meetings and see what it’s all about.

    • Hi Taxpayer, As a Downtown Streets Team member and now graduate, I can identify with the criticism you quote. I felt like that too, but I’m happy to report that like a lot of other things in life— the counter-intuitive answer is the true one. I found that being a member of a crew with a worthy goal (cleaning up street or soccer field litter, for example) left me feeling part of something. It was good feeling a member of a crew. The gift cards were a help, too. Eventually (about 18 months after joining DST) I had a job I love, a place to live, and joy in my heart. I stopped thinking about myself and helped others. My life has gotten so much better. DST has more than lived up to their part of the bargain and then some. The case managers are great folks and– as opposed to some other “helping agencies”– they actually enjoy helping homeless people and DO help us. Some other agencies are not so kind or well intentioned as DST. DST is Number One in my book. Julia Lang and Shannon Robinson and Rob Sanchez and Zia Mc Williams worked hard and joyfully to make my life and others’ lives much less homeless and much more filled with hope and gratitude– than which there is no greater gift. Thank you Downtown Streets Team!

  2. Very hard, meaningful work. Thank this thoughtful couple, the sites and everyone who makes this happen.

  3. Dear TAXPAYER (commenter above),

    Your premises are flawed and therefore the conclusions you draw from them are false. It’s clear that you have not taken the time to look into Downtown Streets Team (DST), so let me clue you in. Full disclosure: I am an employee of DST and if what you said about the homeless men and women we serve were true, I would be the first one out the door. No one is cracking any whips on DST and everyone who joins the team does so as a volunteer in their community — whether that is San Jose, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, San Rafael, or San Francisco. This is a way to reconnect with and contribute to their communities while also rebuilding soft employment skills like adhering to a schedule, working as a team, and completing projects. The true benefit of the program is our intensive case management and employment counseling services. We don’t tell anyone what they have to do; instead we ask them what they want to work on (employment, housing, sobriety, benefits…) and we help them achieve those goals. The stipends (gift cards) that we distribute to our Team Members are not meant to be a living wage, but are instead to help them obtain their basic needs while they’re securing employment or benefits. We are a transitional program after all. We have built connections with many small businesses to create employment pipelines for our Team Members so that they can earn a living wage and we provide ongoing support to our Team Members after they graduate from our program to make sure that they sustain their employment. As a result, our Team Members retain their employment for 90 days at a rate of over 5 times the national average for transitional employment programs.

    You falsely state that the homeless men and women who are trying to better their lives through our program are “serfs” and in doing so you’re threatening the progress of any of our Team Members who may read your misguided comment. Our program is about empowerment not trash metrics, but people take pride in their volunteer efforts and the public benefit they’re providing, and they have actually made a significant impact on the health of our creeks in San Jose. Nobody forces Team Members to stay on the Team, but those who do (obviously not the ones you’ve spoken to), will tell you that there are many many benefits to be had for those who want them.

    Sincerely,

    Greg Pensinger

  4. I live in midland texas and i would love visit preferably face to face if possible to gather the good and bad regarding providing the same service here. My name is harold

  5. > Dignity on Wheels will provide up to 30 showers and 14 single loads of laundry a day with this one trailer. Organizers have put a call for donations of towels, toiletries, sandals and sweats.

    At a cost of . . . .WHAT?

    Looks to me like a pretty expensive custom rig with high operation and maintenance costs.

    What’s the alternative?

    > Currently, only three locations in the entire county offer showers to the homeless, but limit them to certain days.

    Well, duh!

    An obvious solution.

    Stop wasting money on a $30,000 pimped out mobile bum washer, and use the money to expand the locations and times were showers are available.

    Just use the non-profit ride services that are already available, or buy a couple of surplus airport rental car shuttles and make 20 runs per day.

    20 runs per day times times 20 bums per run equals 400 bums washed per day. Versus 30 bums per day in the Dukes of Hazard auto show “General Dignity Lee”

    This is NOT a solution to a social problem.

    It’s moral exhibitionism on the part of the Big Hearts intent on demonstrating that the “traditional” charitable approaches of “Christian” society are failing.

    It’s just shaming weak minded and morally shallow Churchmen into accepting that their close mindedness and religious “rigidity” somehow contributes to the “homeless” problem.

    Is YOUR church doing this? Why not?

  6. Amazing idea! I love that it helps them get a shower and wash their clothes. I can’t believe anyone would have something negative to say. It just proves no matter what it is and no matter how positive, someone will complain.