Borough President Eric Adams and Councilman Carlos Menchaca joined community organizations in Sunset Park last Wednesday to announce funding for a new mobile shower unit. The bus, equipped with two stalls, soap, a sink, toilet and benches, will be operational in roughly one year to offer free showers.
Adams’s office allocated $308,000 for the project, while Menchaca contributed $77,000 in funding. The borough president said his own family was “on the verge of homelessness” eight or nine times in his childhood, so the issue has personal meaning.
“Being destitute should not be a signal for lack of dignity or respect,” he said. “Far too often, people attempt to look down on those who are homeless, and don’t identify the fact that they’re our former neighbors that have fallen on hard times.”
The bus will be run by community organizations Brooklyn Community Services (BCS) and Turning Point Brooklyn, based in Sunset Park. BCS formed more than 150 years ago in the aftermath of the Civil War, when many Brooklyn children lived on the streets because their fathers had died fighting in the war, according to executive director Marla Simpson.
Tata Traore-Rogers, executive director of Turning Point, said their staff will create a map of locations where homeless groups congregate in the borough. The bus schedule will follow that map.
She added that the map will be open for changes.
“If somebody comes in and says there’s a new hangout spot under the bridge, the bus will go there,” she said. “It’s very nimble.”
The shower unit will mostly serve the street homeless, who don’t live in shelters, and people known as “couch hoppers.” Traore-Rogers described that group as people who don’t identify as homeless, and have some means of supporting themselves, but not enough for a place to live.
It will also be used by migrant workers and runaway youth, particularly in the LGBT community.
The bus will be connected to a fire hydrant for its water supply, Traore-Rogers said, so they will work with the FDNY. Though the groups initially wanted to have an environmentally friendly bus that recycles the water, they found that option to be far too complicated and expensive.
The idea of offering showers to the homeless is not new. For six years, Turning Point operated a stationary shower project on 4th Avenue in Sunset Park. It provided a shower stall, soap and shampoo, a shaving kit, socks and underwear, access to a laundry room and a place to sit and rest.
Traore-Rogers said it served about 35 people per day to a rotating group. In the summer, even more homeless individuals used it.
The project was run by local volunteer Johnny Merizalde, who himself was struggling with homelessness and dependence on alcohol after the death of his wife. Merizalde participated in Turning Point’s care and counseling programs, and eventually dedicated himself to find other homeless neighbors who could use the services.
Though the stationary shower lost its lease last July, the two groups are trying to find a new location. Simpson said they have already looked at a few places, and hope for it to be operational again by this summer.
At Wednesday’s announcement, Merizalde, a bit camera shy, said he was excited to see the bus arrive “very soon.”
The community organizations also drew inspiration from outside the state. Traore-Rogers said she learned about an organization in San Francisco called Lava Mae, which converts and refurbishes old city buses into roaming shower and hygiene units.
That project eventually expanded with a satellite program in Los Angeles, and similar models have been replicated around the world in Japan and Zimbabwe. Traore-Rogers said she would love for the MTA to consider the idea of allowing old buses to be used for the initiative.
Adams added that using former MTA buses would substantially decrease the cost. Right now, the groups plan to purchase new buses and retrofit them.
“My goal for the next capital fiscal year is to duplicate this and get another bus,” Adams said. “We would like to, in the next couple of years, roll out a number of buses throughout Brooklyn.”
The borough president called on his counterparts in the other four boroughs to follow suit, and offer a shower bus program in their own counties.
The funding covers the capital costs for the project, but the organizations would still need money to cover cleaning and maintenance costs. Simpson said they are actively fundraising, crowdfunding, and have met with foundations and elected officials on the subject.
Though the project will take a year to execute, which Adams said he hopes to expedite, community leaders focused on the importance of these showers and services for the homeless, especially meeting them where they are.
“If they feel ashamed, if their dignity is stripped away, they don’t want to come out and come to our location,” Traore-Rogers said. “So we’re going to them and offering them these services hoping that it’s a stepping stone for them to regain dignity in their life.”