Grassroots showers

There are so many things in colonial government responses to COVID that are both predictable and also disturbing. Among these is the refusal to make sure that people who are sheltering outside can access basic hygiene like handwashing and showers close to where they are living.

The United Nations has repeatedly stated that access to hygiene services close to where you are living is a basic human right. But rather than work with people living outside and with community groups actively on the ground, government keeps coming up with lists of reasons why they can’t turn on the taps in parks. Instead, the city is insisting on a centralized approach to showers that requires people (who the municipality has dispersed to parks far from survival services) walk or bus long distances to wash up. So much for sheltering-in-place if you’re sick.

In the meantime, people in community are making it happen using low-cost practical solutions. Early on the Indigenous Harm Reduction Team put together simple buckets and foot pumps to get COVID-safe DIY handwashing stations out to sites where people are living outside. Instead of supporting this, two municipal governments actively obstructed it by confiscating buckets that they viewed as “trash”.

In seven months, the best that government has done is temporarily install a shower trailer outside one social service organization downtown, and provide that organization with money to have evening shower hours. While it’s good to have more shower hours for people who can access that service, it still doesn’t address the reality that the municipal and provincial governments has deliberately pushed people out of downtown greenspace so locating more services downtown doesn’t actually increase access for people who in some cases are living 6km away from downtown.

We have written many letters and spoken at Council meetings about the need for shower access close to where people are living, and have been yelled at by City staff members saying there is no way they are going to “facilitate homelessness” by installing shower trailers in or near parks. This kind of poor-bashing and blaming of poor people isn’t new but it’s disheartening to see such cruelty used to justify denial of access to hygiene in the midst of a respiratory pandemic.

The shower access issue has become a platform for government and large poverty industry organizations to propagate patronizing, infantilizing anti-poor stereotypes. After voting to explore opening up showers at a park where sheltering is not allowed but at least is closer to one park site, the city put these plans on hold because they can’t find a service provider who can do comprehensive service provision at the shower site. In one news article, a parks manager says, “without the proper wrap-around supports, such as harm reduction or health supports, the risk will be very high to offer the service at the site”. That is ridiculous. Yes, there’s risk of overdose anywhere people can close a door — that is why most overdose deaths happen inside housing. But the solution is not to ban people who are stereotypically assumed to be using illicit substances from accessing bathrooms, showers, or other city infrastructure. Just as the city opened up 24 bathrooms close to where people are living, showers need to be available in every park. This includes conversations with people living outside about their ideas around safety.

Rather than sitting idle and hoping government will get it together, a grassroots network of community members is taking matters into their own hands. They have built two shower stalls and will be installing them in one of the parks far from downtown where many people are sheltering. The city hasn’t given permission, and the installation of a structure and use of propane to heat water will break Parks bylaws. Will the city invest resources in tearing these structures down or will they do something useful — like working with the shower builders to hook up the structures to City water pipes? Time will tell…in the meantime, kudos to the shower builders for listening to people living outside and taking useful action.

Photo of community shower build
Shower stalls built by community members, from an article about the build in The Tyee – photo by Emily Fagan

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