The Power of a Free Public Shower

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 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.


Simon Community: Ealing Soup Kitchen: Free showers in Paris: Showers in Toulouse: Depaul’s mobile service: Showers in Madrid: Showers in Brooklyn:

My Intoxication Reason

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(This is a creative piece based on my original review in The Independent –

I often describe myself as “all or nothing” and it’s a relief that I’ve never been challenged on it. I have no real experience of what it is to be “all” anything. I can verge on the Facebook Stalker, a no-text-reply can send me down Worry Street and I have to make sure I swim a round number of lengths in the pool. I have an unnecessarily anxious and obsessive approach to life but it hasn’t thus far been coloured by a period which I’ll need to sit down and tell you about over a tea, somewhere quiet. When I was 13 I did get caught stealing, though. It was a bit of a stupid thing to do – run out of a shop when you’ve been walking on the wild side and expect it not to draw attention to you. The shop assistant took up the chase, brought me back and asked me to hand them over. I’d been playing a bit of a game for the past few months along with most of Year 9 so it took a few seconds to understand her. Then, the first hot, heavy realisation of being in big trouble was ladled over me and the poxy elastic bead bracelets bulged as I withered. My right jean pocket USB-connected to my heart, thumping in tandem. I gave them to the glowering woman and agreed to pay while my friend who I’d left in the shop stood next to her, full pockets, holding her breath. A long, uneasy period followed, stemming from the belief that I’d in fact spent years being bad. I told my mum everything I’d ever done. A particular worry was that for years she’d given me £1 for two 40p bus journeys each day and I’d spent the remaining 20p on sweets. If this was one of those wordy tricky maths questions the answer was that I was a stinking thief. It was a label I wore for a while and a similar approach spilt onto other teenage experiments. One cigarette and it would all be over, I’d be a Chain Smoker, shifty and unrecognisable, most likely on the run.

Possibly those hardened criminal days led me to construct thick, solid walls of rules as I got older and it felt safer that way. When I started out in the creative world I frantically layered on a few extra layers of bricks. It’s rife with naughtiness. When a figure in the public eye gets outed for leaked drug using photos it’s an irrational empathy aligned to the moment that I got caught – “But everyone else is doing it too!” I’m a panicker, stressed about what it is to be alive and what best to do with limited time in this strange, great place. Manic about not messing up, defined by my own labels and now with what I’d describe as a consuming strictness, the manifestation of which being that I drink far more than I should at a house party full of dabblers. The next day, they at the pub, eating a Sunday roast, feeling fine and rosy. Me, greeny-grey, in a long and intense embrace with the toilet bowl.

But now here’s the arrival of Kew Gardens’ ‘Intoxication Season’, at a time where I’m reassessing my approach (to the ‘softer’ drugs which are regularly up for debate as opposed to the more obviously life-wrecking and devastating ones. When it comes to those I’m fine with a Pass Go). We all want or intend to have a life free from the pain of dependancy but a long time of saying “no” without hesitation has gone too far the other way. It’s had more dangerous consequences than safe ones. I’ve felt suffocated thus on impulse behaved stupidly. I’ve been back at school and immature, stunted proper thought and the considering of my options as an adult. Even if the answer does end up being the same, isn’t it vital to manage and understand the journey in order to feel secure in the destination? The title ‘Intoxication Season’ was alluringly vague, its subheading on the programme being ‘From everyday to class A, mind-altering plants and fungi are here…’ Here for me, I deduced. ‘You’ll discover just how potent plants can be… step into a mind-blowing world’. All very exciting. And workshops too? How would they put interactivity in those without a bit of testing? Indeed media coverage confirmed just that. I was led by the promise of regulated experimentation and the surrounding controversy was my gavel – I was SOLD! Never had an online purchase been conducted with such speed and efficiency. This morning I went to Kew Gardens to explore mind-altering natural plants and my god, I was allowed!
It started to rain as I walked through the gardens but a wet dog afro would not quell my inner childish excitement, nor weigh down my skip. Noting that I should be calmer, more responsible and a little prepared for what lay ahead, I opened the programme. The unfunny irony of it! After delving into my past, after scraping out my behaviours and motivations, each of the four weekends had been allocated a drug – alcohol, cannabis, magic mushrooms or coffee. And of course, I had come to learn all about the intricacies of coffee. The world’s greatest morning pick-me-up could tuck me back into bed when it came to it as a talking point. Yes, if anyone tried to take one away from me they’d be wiping it off their face but this was a stimulant I was down with. Things were not going to plan, a feeling emphasised when I bought a mood-improving three quid cup, only to discover that around the corner they were giving the stuff out for free.
Alright, it was coffee. But what kind of coffee? The kind we’ve never heard of, from somewhere high in the South American mountains where a sniff would send me spinning? Bypassing food experimentalists Bombas and Parr’s guarana tasting (at an extra fiver on top on the £15 entrance fee, I decided to later raid Whole Foods for it instead, this surely wasn’t The Testing…), I headed to the first of the four daily talks. This was less a wild session of caffeine-injecting, more an informative talk titled ‘Coffeenomics’ by Head of Operations at the International Coffee Organisation, Mauricio Galindo. He talked about the coffee trade throughout history and the impact of climate change on production and the market. It was interesting and concise with big facts dotted throughout – the global coffee market is worth $174 billion?! Two billion cups are drunk daily and it’s the second most consumed beverage in the world (I wondered what the first was for quite some time, the shame). Now I was doubly resentful of the ‘Intoxication Season’, first for being inconveniently educational and second for making me feel silly, at the back of the class chewing gum and swinging on my chair, only to realise half-way through that the lesson was actually worth listening to. The class could have been separated into two groups – the Loopholers and the locals. At the end a few people enquired about roasting their own coffee. It was Kew, after all.
Onto the tasting, of the Robusta and Arabica blends. We heard about deforestation to meet demand and the impact of external influences on farmers’ livelihoods while we sipped. Both were pretty delicious and I was now less of a petulant child and thankfully more of an adult, nodding and questioning. Even when it comes to something as seemingly harmless as coffee, we still have our options, there’s a debate to be had and a responsibility to find out the impact of what we are consuming. Next to the tent was another, flaps down and zipped. Was this the mystery-shrouded tent of experimentation, darkened, quiet and herbs abound while a white coat with a scribbly clipboard was serious and encouraging? Of course not. Instead, with flaps as shelter from the pissing rain, two ladies in mackintoshes were hot under the collar about the mad world of fungi. I waited for them to make the first move in case it was indeed a front for something a little different. The closest it got to magic was the pun on the sign outside which read ‘Magical Mushrooms!’ I was unamused.
Last stop, the Princess of Wales Conservatory. It never was going to be a password and secret handshake kind of a place with a name like that. We were instructed not to touch, for here lived The Drugs. They grew in neat little bushes behind name plaques with accompanying notes on their hallucinatory properties. It was a strange experience, reading and looking up at the mischief-maker just behind. A bit like going to the zoo and not being able to stroke the flamingo or tickle the monkey. I wasn’t the only one who had gotten the wrong end of the pipe (sorry). My favourite messages in the Comments Book were “Not enough drugs. Refund please”, and “Cheaper in Brixton x”.
It wasn’t that I expected to be plied with Class As and left to go running around the flower beds and scaling trees but I expected a lick of a mushroom or a chew of a leaf in the name of science. My hopes were dashed but the trip was good and thought-provoking. It resonated that the impact of even the simplest of choices must not be underestimated, their vibrations being felt thousands of miles away in another world. What impressed the most though was the contrasting approaches of different societies and cultures towards the same subject. Alcohol is prohibited in many of the cultures in which the use of (many highly dangerous) plant substances is commonplace. Here we drink with relish and abandon, regardless of the three million alcohol-related deaths globally. Then there are the Dutch and their weed. I am now developing another risky consideration: I may get my first tattoo. Possibly, ‘Think carefully, for yourself’. But I haven’t decided yet.

At That Moment

What would happen at that moment?

Would my body shriek with the shock of the slam, while all the atoms inside exploded into Big Bang-like crazed activity, unsure of the occasion but jolted regardless? Perhaps they’d be bright with colour and twinkling like glow-worms; they might dart here and there fast and determined. They might tear through the night like sparklers held by dumb and gleeful children on November 5th. Shifting as energy must, they’d reassemble to resemble a 90s rave in south-east London, strobe lights pulsing on sweating faces with white round eyes and black holes shot through them. In the black, solid heat, the bass would tremble, the hundreds of fists would pound the air to its rhythm and the neon sticks would draw shapes that would float, stunned, then revert to nothing.

Or would I form a lesson in Biology in which my skin would disintegrate, soluble, and school pupils would peek through their fingers in satisfied disgust at the gruesome display of thumping purple heart and twisted slime of intestine?

Or perhaps God would pick me up by my legs and shake me like a rattle, to alleviate His boredom for a while.

Most likely, though, it’d be glass shattering furiously inside the walls of my body. The shards would hit the skin, craving to pierce and angry at their inability to penetrate. They’d keep flying its way like a doomed army. And who would command them in their pointless pursuit? A General, helmet on and at the nucleus would point straight at the raw flesh and shout, ‘SHOOT! DO IT! YOU’RE NOTHING BUT SCUM!’ He himself would not shoot because then who would give the orders? The battalions would forge and fail, row upon row of flailing arrows. Some would stick in partly and leave me with braille for skin.

Afterwards, the water would moan its sorrow. It would hold me together, cradling me hard. It would try to push me up, back to the bridge, yearning to reverse Time, as it always would. How deep runs the hurt of the Thames, forced to bear life ending? Suspended at the surface of the water, I’d sigh and feel the air leave me empty. Sensing my warmth become a part of it, the river would know I was going. Parting my lips it’d rush into my mouth, filling my lungs and beginning my journey. Not letting me go just yet.

My mind would have moments left. In those moments, I would hear my Grandma call for me, ‘Sarah Sorrow!’ I would tell her that I was coming and that we would be together again soon. I would comb Nanna’s hair. I would tickle her chin with a feather and she would giggle.

The future, then, would be certain. And all would be well.

The River

I have crossed this footbridge many times but still I take each step slowly. I approach, and each heel meets the ground and falls heavy as I make sure of the connection. Heels to flats to the balls of my feet and ending with my toes. My steps are considered because the river and the panorama of London, lit at night, rip my breath from my throat and leave me suspended and I feel I might find out if I can fly.

The stairs to the footbridge are those long planks and feet could break bloody in its windows; legs could slip clean through them. I will never be able to imagine my ascension without the wind, agitated and reckless, blowing my hair and making my nose cold; at times muttering its lament, and at others slicing its rage through my skull. I’m on the last step and then I walk in the middle. I look ahead and through the clusters of people I see that the bridge goes on forever. Teenagers muck about in the domes of light and I grow tense. Couples take their own photos, a large family from Up North sections off an area and to walk past them means I must walk near the edge. I veer with forced conviction and run my hand on the metal bar and keep myself at arm’s distance. I walk a little while and then I stop.

The city’s beauty is inimitable because it is London, yet its very existence may fuel Man to attempt to outdo Himself. This would be futile. He has excelled here and Nature is, for once, pleased. The Thames entwines free and strong from source to sea, bedecked with palaces flowing with legends, stamped with council blocks housing volumes of their own, in the blissful and troubling company of millions of lives. What sorrow when one of those millions ends in it? The river carries it as far as it can, soothing it in its embrace, till at last it must let it go. The leaving life is lifted past the sharp silhouette of Westminster, one of London’s celebrated jewels. The others – the rather less pictured, the almost ignored – are amassed in a great black bin-liner, infinite glinting and twinkling near-secrets mixed in with filth and gravel. Some God is carrying the whole lot, the black and the clear over his shoulder, to somewhere far away. He may have a plan or he may improvise but sometimes he stubs his toe hard, stumbles a little and curses. Behind me, Sir Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral is at once austere and warming, its contrast reflected so deeply romantically in the gold against its encasing midnight blue. Its palpable history is velvet, packaged pride and I’m privileged to feel a part of it. But, at times, I seep with yearning, to be engulfed by it, aching to be fixed in its stone. Further right there are the glass towers of Canary Wharf that leave me frightened and madly in love even though I don’t believe in them. The view is the most exquisite I will ever see and I know it has the power to hold my breath from me forever.

Suddenly I’m struck by the pole of the high jump, by how easy it’d be to scissor my legs over the bar. I’m at school again, in P.E., and there are groups of girls behind me, clambering and manic with frenzied chatter. It’s my turn next and I’m nervous and getting ready to run. “Go!” and I thrust my body forward but I’m back on the bridge, at the edge again. I push myself away from it and I’m pathetic, unable to meet the challenge. But challenge met, it’s said that one often dies on impact, body hitting block of water, shattering all of one’s insides like a pane of double glazing. I’d then blend with the river like a Bolognese in water. Or there are the night trips, those three course and jazz music cruises. Smashing on a boat would be a messy affair and I wouldn’t like to do it that way because of the people that would find me, broken and gooey and all over the place. Because of the man, about to retire, who would be asked to pick up all the pieces, put them in a bag and zip it closed.

Instead, first the cold will beat at me, turning me brown to blue to purple as I begin to sink. And this will be the moment when I’ll question whether I made the right decision. I’ll find I am suffocating far from the banks, with the current whipping and dragging at my feet and relentlessly pulling me deeper like an anchor. There’ll be no turning back and perhaps I’ll try to calm myself to thinking, “Oh, well this is a new experience”.

But I find I am walking again. A Big Issue seller asks me to buy his last copy, which is crinkled and months old. I give him a pound and he tells me that one is not enough for a hostel. It’s all I have and I push my hands deeper into my pockets, even though it’s a mild night. I walk to the rhythm of the steel drums I am passing and the glee of the drummer pulls my mouth and makes me smile. I allow the calypso to colour my mind with pinks and oranges and greens. But I don’t want to hold that fantasy; reality is dream-like enough. The descending stairs are not far away now and I slow down and think of the river.

It shimmers below me, treads water, looks up and invites me to swim a little with it. It tells me that it will look after me and that we will live together forever. It tells me it loves me. I wave, and I shout I love you too. But I will see you soon. I don’t want to swim. Not this time.