In Jersey City, New Jersey, weekday mornings are bustling at the Journal Square station. People rush in and out of trains and across platforms; most are coming from or going to New York City, commuting to work or dropping children off at daycare.
But a few people near the Journal Square station won’t be stepping onto a train. Instead, they’re stepping into a mobile shower. They’ll be met with soap, warm water and clean towels.
This month, the City of Jersey City launched a pilot program offering free access to showers, bathrooms and a new set of clothes to anyone in need. Many of the people visiting these showers are experiencing homelessness; after their shower, they have the opportunity to talk to coordinators on site who can refer them to additional resources.
A hot shower creates a launching point to connect people with what they need, whether it’s mental health support, checking in with a case manager or receiving SNAP or Medicaid benefits.
Mayor Steven Fulop said that the program goes beyond cleanliness. The goal is to build trust.
“We started to think about how to use the resources — simple things like a shower — as a conduit to building a bond and trust and a larger conversation to steer people towards better services,” Fulop told NationSwell.
The pilot program was created after a series of meetings between citizens and the mayor’s Quality of Life Task Force, a group of leaders from across city departments involved with issues pertaining to the public. One common concern from Journal Square business owners and residents was sanitation in and around the station.
“This isn’t a police issue, this isn’t a prosecution issue … this is really a health and human services issue,” Stacey Flanagan, the director for Health and Human Services of Jersey City told NationSwell.
For a solution, the city turned to a similar one implemented after Hurricane Sandy. To help with recovery from the superstorm’s impact, Jersey City used grant funds to purchase a mobile shower unit. For years, the showers sat unused. Today, the unit has a new purpose. It serves about five people every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning.
Jersey City isn’t the first place to implement mobile showers. In Oregon’s Washington County, Community Connection, a coalition of nonprofits, finished building a mobile shower unit earlier this month. The City of San Antonio, California, is currently in discussions to purchase a $58,000 mobile shower.
Since 2014, the nonprofit Lava Mae has been driving throughout San Francisco, Los Angeles and Oakland serving hundreds of people every week. In California, where there are thousands of individuals facing homelessness and few public showers, the ability to get clean is a challenge.
“Here we are in this first-world country, in a super affluent city, and still, we have people who don’t have access to water and sanitation,” the founder, Doneice Sandoval, told NationSwell.
Flanagan noted that “we’re not promising a shower’s going to change your whole life,” but that being clean can create a sense of dignity. It can give people the courage to interact with business owners, apply for jobs and move through the world without fear of judgment. One man left saying he “felt like a million bucks,” she said.
Currently, the project is projected to run throughout the rest of the year. Afterward, the city will assess the best location and times to offer showers.
Jersey City is part of Hudson County, where homelessness has been on a steady rise over the last three years. A 2019 study conducted by the nonprofit Monarch Housing Associates found a 3% increase — approximately 30 individuals — in the number of people experiencing homelessness from January 2018 to January 2019.
Jobs and affordable housing were among the top causes of homelessness, which gives insight into areas of improvement for Hudson County.
“There are organizations doing great work around homelessness, but there are some things that fall through the cracks,” said Flanagan.
Jersey City also has plans to open a shelter next year that would provide rooms for 150 individuals, with space for 14 people living with HIV/AIDS and six permanent homes.
“I think the system has failed these people in many different ways,” Fulop said. “So doing a simple gesture that most people take for granted on a daily basis, can really go a long way.”