Homelessness is one of the many simmering systemic issues that the pandemic has brought to a boil. Interrelated challenges of inequality, joblessness and evictions have put 30 million people at risk of losing their homes. Yet there is a silver lining: More organizations are acting fast to reach more people and develop new ways to serve that can guide us well beyond the current crisis.
At the start of 2020, LavaMaeX —which helps grassroots enterprises around the world deliver mobile showers and other essential care services—couldn’t predict how crucial local organizations would become as COVID-19 shuttered shelters, public spaces, shops and cafés and hampered or cut off services that unhoused people need for basic survival.
“Services that provided critical resources are either substantially limited or no longer available,” says James Winfrey, director of operations at Los Angeles’ Urban Alchemy, which provided hot showers for 3,000 people in 2020. “The pandemic has infected unhoused people in our community because of the limited services put in place due to social distancing and potential infection.”
Urban Alchemy is one of about 250 programs LavaMaeX has inspired or trained; right now, we’re actively working with over 100 organizations, including 10 that launched in the midst of the pandemic to provide mobile showers to unsheltered people and help stop the spread of COVID-19. They all have valuable lessons about collaboration, scaling impact in a crisis and how to give care in a way that changes lives.
The pandemic is showing that organizations can better fulfill their mission during a crisis by working together. This approach is built into LavaMaeX’s Pop-Up Care Villages and Hygiene+ program, where local service providers come together at shower service sites to provide haircuts, clothing, counseling and other services. This kind of collaboration is proving to be invaluable in the time of the pandemic.
“The top needs of our unhoused guests today are hygiene, housing and food,” says Lance Olinski, founder of Streetside Showers in McKinney, Texas. In LA, Urban Alchemy’s Winfrey is strengthening ties with nonprofits that fulfill those needs.
These organizations and others are essentially becoming a one-stop access point for holistic care that helps stem the spread of COVID-19 in addition to helping people move through homelessness with dignity and hope.
In Warwick, Rhode Island, House of Hope CDC’s Shower to Empower mobile unit, which has been operating on a limited schedule during the pandemic, brings medical services to their guests. The customized trailer has a private medical space where teams from Brown University’s Warren Alpert School of Medicine and the University of Rhode Island College of Nursing work with House of Hope CDC’s case managers to give unhoused people checkups and person-centered care, and help them navigate the healthcare system.
Similarly, the University of California San Francisco School of Nursing’s Street Nursing team joins LavaMaeX outreach teams weekly to bring COVID-19 hygiene kits, wound assessment and specialist referrals directly to encampments, and they provide medical services during shower service in San Francisco.
“We’re a conduit, a point of entry, for our guests to connect to the services they need to get into housing,” says Sam Stephens, executive director of Clean the World Foundation, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit. One such connection is House of Hope CDC, which is creating two tiny-house villages, one as a short-term community and a second as permanent supportive housing.
The lift of collaboration helps small businesses too. When Streetside Showers joined forces with Hugs Café to provide lunch and dinner for its shower guests, that allowed the café to keep its doors open and expand its regional presence despite the loss of business to the pandemic.
In Honolulu, Revive + Refresh brings showers and sanitation precautions to the city’s homeless encampments, and medical outreach teams from the University of Hawai‘i’s Hawai‘i H.O.M.E. project provide flu shots, prescriptions and reading glasses to the homeless. The pandemic has spurred statewide collaboration as well, notes Revive + Refresh founder Craig Shoji, with a biweekly conference call for service providers where participants discuss what everyone is doing and how they can help each other.
Scaling Radical Hospitality to go above and beyond
With the pandemic, go-to resources for bare necessities like drinkable water, food and clothing disappeared overnight. Unhoused people stayed in their encampments, worried that they risked COVID-19 infection if they sought services or went to a shelter—if shelters were still open.
Across the country, this situation catalyzed organizations to help their unhoused neighbors get through the crisis, guided by the LavaMaeX Radical Hospitality ethos of meeting people, wherever they are, with extraordinary care. Our mobile shower service affiliates went above and beyond—they did not leave their guests behind, despite strict shelter-in-place mandates. Quite a few even launched or expanded services. For example, SHARE Community moved up their mobile shower launch in East Contra Costa County to late 2020 because they felt a sense of urgency about enabling people to wash their hands and get a shower to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“We’re rising up to help our community,” says Ricka Davis-Sheard, SHARE’s founder, noting that 83 percent of unhoused people in the county are locals. “We can’t wait for others to help; we need grassroots effort from the community who sees what’s needed and responds.” Clothing is one such need, and SHARE collaborates with White Pony Express to supply like-new clothing and shoes.
To serve the expanding population of unhoused people in suburban Texas, Streetside Showers acquired a fourth shower unit. Clean the World Foundation went from one mobile shower unit at the beginning of the pandemic to four in Nevada and one in Florida—plus adding 300 mobile bathrooms and 300 handwashing stations to served unhoused people in Nevada, Florida and Puerto Rico.
When it is too cold for mobile showers, Support the Soupman in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, instead swaps out their showers for school buses retrofitted as warming stations and a consignment shop of winter gear. They hand out hot soup, COVID-19 hygiene kits, a change of clothes and a laundry card. “Adapting our services during this toughest time of year for the unhoused has made a big difference in our community,” says Board Member Nicole Tongue.
Despite being stretched for funding, Wave Project in northern metro Detroit kept providing shower services every Sunday in the metro area because closed warming centers, shelters and meal services left more unhoused people vulnerable to hunger, illness and street violence.
Building it forward
“I hope that this pandemic is a reckoning and awakening about our worn-thin social safety net,” says Laura Jaworski, House of Hope’s executive director. “I hope it casts light into what unhoused folk’s daily life is like, celebrates them for what they bring and creates space for them to move forward. When we rebuild, we want to think of everybody.”
If we are to best help people move through homelessness, we can’t leave behind the creativity and solutions that have arisen in response to the pandemic. We can use the crisis to catalyze collaboration and inform our shared work to make sure no one is left behind as we move toward recovery. When communities solve problems together, create connections, share resources and advice, and celebrate each other’s wins, they can serve more people and serve them better. Most important, collaboration leads to a worldwide community grounded in Radical Hospitality, an ethos that can help restore dignity, rekindle optimism and offer a sense of hope.
Kris Kepler is CEO of LavaMaeX, a nonprofit that teaches people around the world to bring mobile showers and other essential care services to the street, where unhoused people need them most. Its approach is grounded in Radical Hospitality®—an ethos of meeting people wherever they are with extraordinary care.