Taking a shower in the morning is something most of us take for granted, but for homeless people living on the street, it is a luxury.
On Thursday, June 30 a 20-foot ShowerUp trailer with three shower stalls, air conditioned in the summer and heated in the winter, was spotted in the parking lot owned by the village of Forest Park, just north of the Blue Line Station.
Sergio Ortiz, operations manager for ShowerUp Chicago, reported that 12 homeless people took advantage of the service that first night and his 501c3 nonprofit has provided 800 showers during the past year at various sites in the Chicago area.
“The Loyola Street Medicine team,” Dr. Theresa Nguyen, co-director of Loyola Street Medicine explained, “has been working closely with Housing Forward and The Night Ministry over the last few years at the Blue Line station to help provide medical and social outreach to the homeless population.”
Working together, the three organizations provide medication refills, evaluation of recent injuries, dressing changes for chronic wounds, blood pressure and blood sugar checks. The Night Ministry provides social workers that help with getting IDs and insurance. They also provide outreach workers to provide food, clothing, and harm-reduction supplies, including needle exchanges, sharps containers, clean pipes, Narcan, etc.
“The Night Ministry staff,” added Burke Patten, a spokesman for the agency, “inform the individuals we are assisting about the availability of ShowerUp’s facilities and even walk them over to the mobile unit when needed. We are grateful for everyone who has come together to provide access to showers and additional services at the station.”
The second half of the story is about how these services came to be.
Pilar Shaker knows the need for a place to shower very well and has been struggling to find a way to address it for years as director of the Forest Park Public Library where many homeless people hang out to keep cool in the summer and stay warm in the winter. Many sleep on Blue Line train cars at night and the library is half a block away from the station at the end of the line on Desplaines Avenue.
Shaker knew the need but didn’t have the time or funding to meet it. Then the library got an intern, named Jessie Olstad, in January from the Loyola School of Social Work. Shaker now had a person with the time to do research and find a nonprofit like ShowerUp, which had just opened a branch of its operation in the Chicago area.
After meeting with ShowerUp in February, it became apparent to Shaker that “the library did not have the physical infrastructure, including enough parking and a place for folks to gather outside while waiting for their turn, to host the service.”
“Jessie was eager to not give up on the idea,” Shaker continued, “so she punted it over to Housing Forward.”
They did not have a magic solution either, but what they did do, according to Michelle Ptack, Housing Forward’s director of communications, was convene a meeting of all the potential stakeholders, including the library, Housing Forward, The Night Ministry, ShowerUp, and Steve Glinke, director of Building Planning and Zoning for the village of Forest Park, to explore space near the Forest Park Blue Line stop.
The village came through with the parking lot near the Blue Line station, a perfect spot to park the three-shower trailer, which will be located there from 8 p.m. till midnight every Thursday.
Ortiz said he strings together almost 200 feet of hose between his trailer and the Mohr Community Center which is the source of water for the showers.
A sociologist named Patrick Sharkey coined the term, “collective efficacy,” to describe how the institutions work together to create community. In that regard, Shaker said, “Our library team feels stupendously lucky to be operating in a community that has organizations and village staff who are so open to collaboration and idea sharing. It really makes Forest Park a great place to work in.”
Libraries have become much more than a place to check out books. They’ve also become locations for the delivery of social services. Olstad, the library intern, is working toward a degree not just in social work, but library social work in particular.
ShowerUp Chicago was launched as an organization in 2021. The website states that 80,000 people in the metropolitan area are categorized as “unhoused.”
“ShowerUp serves those who are the most in need to give them access to basic hygiene and personal care. Beyond that, we want to bring dignity, hope, and love to our friends who are experiencing homelessness. Our outreach includes a mobile shower unit, shower kits, socks, underwear, and everything needed by our unhoused brothers and sisters in Chicago.”
Dave, who has been homeless for two months, says living on the street is hard. After making use of the ShowerUp facility, he expressed gratitude for the opportunity to be “refreshed.”
Edwin has been homeless since 2014 and stays in a tent community in Humboldt Park in the summer and in abandoned buildings during the winter. Sometimes, he said, friends will let him sleep at their place for a night or two, but “it’s not my house, not my key, not my home.”
He volunteers at ShowerUp even though he himself is homeless because “I asked them if there was some way I could give back for the help I’ve received from so many people. Even in my situation I can help out. I like it and at the same time I help myself.”