The Power of a Free Public Shower


https://www.change.org/p/jeremy-corbyn-mp-install-free-public-showers-in-london-to-enhance-the-wellbeing-of-those-who-sleep-rough

Last year, at the winter shelter where I volunteer, a guest said to me that London should have free public showers. It was one of many evenings spent trying to work life out, all our many backgrounds and experiences often rushing and colliding in a confusion of heated words that filled the North London church. On many nights, the shelter was loud with laughter and the sounds of games and stories, but just as many were loaded with the pain of the past and the despair of the present. Once spoken it was overwhelmingly obvious. In writing this I have to triple-check that there are absolutely no free or even cheap public showers in London. Even post-publishing, I’ll scroll for a comment amounting to an annulment of this piece. Which, ego aside, would be wonderful. It seems too simple with too far-reaching an impact for London not to have them already. But then Network Rail have only just made their public toilets at Charing Cross, Victoria, London Bridge and Cannon Street stations free. I’ve been the one caught out, squirming at the turnstiles, rooting around for non-existent change, dashing to an ATM, to a shop to break the note and then back again. A natural, regular occurrence made a challenge simply by leaving my home. To be human is to be charged; we generate profit by our very design (or by Big Bang, but we’ve had that particular conversation for years, let’s have one which will impact the trajectory of lives today). To make these toilets free was to take one block off the toppling tower of daily challenge of living on the streets, another step being the plan to install water fountains. We’re moving in the right direction then, albeit slowly.

Our human needs make for big business. I read that Victoria Station alone collected £911k for Network Rail in 2017 and over £20m nationwide in the years between 2013/14 and 2016/17. The same article contained a 2016 statement from a Network Rail representative: “We do not profit from these charges … Any money raised from the charges is reinvested into the railway and passenger facilities at our stations”. You’d think the facilities would rival the Ritz’s in that case. The outrage at the state of Manchester Piccadilly’s ones in 2015 suggests they do not. Upon the discovery that the turnstiles were high earners, making £1.1m in three recent years, passengers complained of old, cramped and dated loos. Long overdue then, for them to Free the Pee.

Network Rail is funded mostly by the government (granted £3.8b in 2015/16) and the rest by the train operating companies that pay to use the rail network (£1.6b). A five-year funding settlement means that its Chief Executive, Mark Carne is able to stop all toilet charges from next year, in nationwide relief. He reasoned that he wanted to treat passengers with “dignity and respect”. It’s a long time coming, but perhaps the public’s wellbeing is being put above profit. Showers must logically follow.
If toilets are a primary human need, showers are a close secondary one. Practicality-wise, when the inevitable questions of safety and maintenance are posed, might showers share the toilets’ solutions to these obstacles? As one possibility, an install of basic shower cubicles at the end of each block of station toilets does not seem to be imaginative acrobatics. When we consider human invention, all we’ve created from very little and all we hear that we’re about to, this neither feels fantastical nor futuristic. In fact, it feels more like the past. My father has often spoken fondly of the low-cost public baths and laundry service that he used in the ‘60s, as a child growing up in Fulham. Once a week, the whole family would go and he remembers loving it; he saw his friends and there was a strong and stable sense of community. And if it seems too large a leap to go from no showers to entirely free ones, consider space travel as a wild dream made into a reality. This is relatively simple if it’s made a priority. To help us all feel good and be safe, it surely must be.

Each time I finished my shower and felt like I’d donned a squeaky-clean superhero cape, I was reminded just how good being clean feels (and that’s with only one or two days of dirt washed off me). This prompted a #SpeaktoSadiq reply on Twitter about the impact that free public showers would have on the lives of rough sleepers and subsequently, my thoughts into these words. Corroborated by the following – a collection of opinions of other volunteers and those with experience of rough sleeping. Artist and photographer, Ray-of-Light (and ray of light, he is) whom I met at the winter shelter, told me, “It’s very frustrating to find myself in one of the richest cities in the world [where] public baths and public toilets are being turned into pubs so the council can earn more money … Clean toilets and baths would ensure hygiene and less disease”. Rachel Cullen, Community Manager at homeless organisation, the Simon Community, gave her experience. “Not everyone has access to a day centre, especially those with no recourse to public funding. Being dirty and smelly not only feels really uncomfortable and puts you at risk of infection and illness, it also has a huge effect on how people respond to you in public. Some homeless people who manage to keep on top of their personal hygiene can walk into galleries, museums, libraries and walk into restaurants and pubs to use toilets, sit down and shelter from the cold. It makes a big difference”. Julie Hutchinson, former Community Support Worker at the Simon Community expanded on the subject of stigma. “I definitely think that because [the showers] would be available to everyone, this would take away the stigma that the homeless face every day”.  It was tough to extract a short, concise quote from Andrew Mcleay’s experience, though. Working as a Homeless Support Worker for the Ealing Soup Kitchen, each sentence of his experience gave shuddering flesh to the words I was told in the church that night. “As a homeless person myself, I know how bad it can be. When drop-in [centres] and soup kitchens give out clothes, those new clothes become instantly dirty and virtually unusable without showers. Without a shower, homeless people can feel dirty and embarrassed. It increases the risk of mental health problems like depression, anxiety [and] phobias and can lead to an inability to adapt back into a regular lifestyle. Not washing also can lead to greater chances of infections, disease and debilitating illnesses that cost the NHS millions. I personally have seen some homeless die as a result of preventable disease, caused at least in part to poor hygiene”. We can add horrifying numbers to Andrew’s experience: latest figures show that one rough sleeper dies every two weeks in London. He continued, “Having poor hygiene makes them feel less human, less worthwhile and also unmotivated to get themselves out of their situations. It drastically lowers their self-esteem, and as such also causes them to make decisions they might not normally make, such as abusing things like drugs or alcohol. There are so many cases of homeless people who die needlessly or who end up permanently homeless because in the beginning they were not offered basic amenities. Access to clean water should be a human right and the homeless are not immune to this. If we treat the homeless as best as we can and offer them every service we can, the chances of them staying motivated long enough to get themselves back to a position of independence is much, much greater”. How could it be said any better? Since the Ealing Soup Kitchen installed a shower over a year ago, numbers have tripled in size, primarily due to having a safe space to have a shower, a shave, a haircut and new clothes.

What about other major cities? There have been free public showers in Paris for 18 years, with http://www.paris.fr containing a handy shower search tool. Mobile service, DePaul France launched five years ago to service the areas in Paris with fewer showers and healthcare facilities, running on donations alone. I read an article about the one euro showers run by the city hall in Toulouse, open since 1929. They have now become a social hub, with many lonely elderly people frequenting them. In Madrid there’s a block of showers charging 50 cents for 20 minute showers. This year in New York, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams partnered with community support organisation, Turning Point and Brooklyn Community Services to convert two school buses into showering facilities. Funded by $308k of Adams’s budget and $77k from the New York City Council, the service will take to the streets next year.

Let’s finish back in London. According to the Mayor’s website, every year £8.45m of Greater London Authority funding is spent on services for those who sleep rough. Sadiq Khan secured £4.2m in 2016 to bolster existing services and launch new ones. A further £3.3m was obtained this year to double the number of outreach workers and improve shelters. £600k was secured to expand the No Second Night Out service. This all certainly reads like we’re moving forward, but if showers were to be included in these budgets, the progress would be off the chart. The amount saved by the NHS not having to treat preventable illness would more than cover it.

Whether at stations, as mobile services, as freestanding shower blocks, I’ll need another article to cover the possibilities… as long as minds and hearts are open to them. On the tube recently, I heard the announcement: “There are beggars operating on this train. Please do not encourage them by giving money”. How about – as Network Rail’s Mark Carne says – giving all people “dignity and respect”? To give us all a chance at feeling good and leading safe lives.


Links:

Simon Community: https://www.simoncommunity.org.uk. Ealing Soup Kitchen: http://www.ealingsoupkitchen.org. Free showers in Paris:
https://www.paris.fr/services-et-infos-pratiques/social-et-solidarites/personnes-en-situation-de-precarite/les-bains-douches-municipaux-138. Showers in Toulouse: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-25879227. Depaul’s mobile service: http://Www.depaulfrance.org. Showers in Madrid: http://www.cuv3.com/2015/10/21/aseo-madrid-los-mas-desfavorecidos/. Showers in Brooklyn: https://patch.com/new-york/sunset-park/buses-around-brooklyn-will-offer-showers-homeless-people

March For True Colours


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By Sarah Lamptey
 
 
I’m mixed-raced; my father was brought up in England to Ghanaian parents and my mother is English. I’ve always lived in either Surrey or London and I’ve used the word “lucky” in the past, to describe getting so far into my twenties with only one direct experience of racism (aside from an overwhelmingly hostile reception in Budapest a few years back). The word never sat right though – in the world the decent and common-sensical are striving for, this kind of luck would be unnecessary. We’d save all of our good fortune for acts of God rather than human ill intent. Also, whether experienced late or not, the brutal truth remains the same. Humanity still has a distance to travel and no progress ever came from a rose-tinted perception. 
 
My one direct, racist confrontation was brief and relatively mild, although it shocked me at the time. Late last year, in Kingston, I crossed paths with a man who called me a “f*cking black…” I didn’t hear exactly what I was because I’d sped up, my legs seemingly taking their own initiative. My brain was busy regressing to that of a confused child, “But I didn’t do anything”, it repeated, whilst pushing out shocked, angry tears. Social media came into its own. I felt alone and in pain and was compelled share it the 21st century way: in the form of a Facebook status. The words of support and condemnation went on and on over the next few days, often in lengthy, considered and moving replies. In the face of the animosity people had come to show their beautiful – often hidden – colours and I came to feel more positive about humanity than I had before it had happened. Though less rosy, more real.
 
On Saturday 21st March, UN Anti-Racism Day, I saw journalist Owen Jones tweet that there’d be a march “against racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia” that afternoon in London, organised by Stand Up To Racism. The date signifies the anniversary of the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa. It was to be my first march – not my proudest admission. I’d never gotten myself organised and I barely made this one, only spotting the tweet an hour before it started. On the train I felt energised; I had a purpose. I was to be involved in what I completely believed in. A bizarre shyness and uncertainty flooded in though, the moment I emerged from Oxford Circus tube station into the masses of people. I doubted I was up to the task, whether I was loud and strong enough. I accepted a Socialist Worker placard that read ‘NO TO RACISM’, with ‘Migrants are welcome’ and ’No to Islamophobia’ underneath as bullet points. Holding it, I was verified as a protester, associated with resilience and resolutions yet I felt the opposite, perhaps remembering that reduction of myself as an “f*cking black” something. I walked up Regent Street to the assembly point at Portland Place and in record time made a new friend, Meriel. We stood waiting for the march to begin, making our observations to one another. The atmosphere was infectiously jolly, raucous even. There was a shifty moment when the megaphone leaders started chants that everyone else seemed to know, but the lyrics weren’t tricky. “We are Black, White, Asian and we’re Jews (and we’re gay!)”, to the tune of “She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain”, quickly became my favourite. It really sticks in your head. 
 
The route took us down Regent Street, through Piccadilly Circus, down Haymarket and into Trafalgar Square. With speakers blasting dub in front, weed wafting to my right and noise all around, the protester in me took its first breaths, warmed up and burst into song. It occurred that I should believe in what I was chanting. In extreme cases it was a bit like my childhood, growing up going to church and missing out the parts of the hymns I didn’t absolutely subscribe to. Variations on political beliefs aside, it was an entirely pro-equality and pro-peace parade. I hoped that word and images of marching crowds across the world would get to victims of prejudice and lift them, even a little. As we came up to the Eros statue in Piccadilly Circus, the air changed. The crowd ahead started to sing with less bounce, more power, “There are many, many, more of us than you…”, pointing to where a group of men stood behind policemen. This was the Anti-Anti-Racism Day protest. Ironic that a statue of the God of Love was chosen as their meeting point. It was a feeble assembly, a few rows on the steps, standing and staring. Heart pounding, face hot, ground suddenly less of a support, I began to rewind. But stopped. I was struck, like a good hug that takes you by surprise and knocks you unsteady, that I was surrounded by the intense positivity of many, many strangers. More bright, true colours out of darkness.
 
15,000 people marched in London, Glasgow and Cardiff on Saturday. We know that world unity won’t be brought about any time soon. But to get involved, to join voices and make connections even on the smallest level is progress that all of us can manage. As I left, a woman pointed to my sign and spat,  “No, [migrants are] not welcome here”. Only she said it very, very quietly.