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.
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
On a day like today,
When a mariachi band will rip and whirl through a carriage dense with tears unwept,
The wild joy and mad shift
Makes one smile, makes one laugh.
On a day which hurls rain,
The shock it won’t stop moves to disbelief when it does,
By a lift of light so sharp, so steep
It takes one’s breath, stops the heart.
On a day when it’s just
The meaning of life as the rest has fallen away,
It’s a moment in time
Of peace, of love
And one to hold, always.
Under a sky that’s blue
A mystery comes with every pace
To rival wonder too
To flood the mind and drown the thoughts
That note the bluest blue.
Under a sun that shines
Notions strike along the way
To block the path rays find
So steps are loads that legs can’t take
And eyes are good as blind.
The world, a shock of light and dark
With arcs of colour through
Swoops low to pick you off your feet
To lift the heart, and you.
For chests of thoughts once pulled by chains
Leave ankles free to move
A twist that shifts the mind so that
The soul may push on through…
And the breeze will blow
And the sun will shine
Under a sky that’s blue.
Samuel and Theodore believed that Maxwell couldn’t speak but they were mistaken. Ten years ago Samuel and Theodore had been heated-debating. It may have been about whether ducks really were “lazy-mouldy-bread-eating quacks” or a revert to the controversial and emotional subject of the Disappearing Red Squirrel but it was definitely a crisp but sunny February morning, over breakfast. Maxwell felt his heart hit hard against his ribcage, more urgent this time and he had had enough. He was diagnosed with acute stress and Dr. Otter prescribed 72 hours of bed and voice rest. This was welcome enough news for Maxwell to kiss Old Otter hard on the mouth but of course he wasn’t quite friendly enough to share his line of work. Otter would have had The Pigs out pronto, those lowest of animals. Those that send out a stink which one very quickly learnt to associate with a nasty, punishing pain. They were down on the farm, looking to the untrained human eye as foolish and high on filth, when in reality they were military style training for the fight against the growing number of rascals about. The hard work took a toll on their rubbery pinkness and the swelling was from all of the exercise. The 72 hours passed in peace and pleasure in the form of television through windows and his partner, Tansy. She created a cocoon of nut roasts, bubble baths and other pampering scenarios which Maxwell would not detail to his friends, but a well-timed wink meant that he was a hero after the gymnastics they read into his three days in bed. Maxwell had intended to talk again but he suspected that Tansy preferred him schtum and anyway, he enjoyed his right to remain simply silent. Although lately he’d considered getting out of the business for good and doing a bit of yoga-meditation down in Brighton.
Again, night. Benjie lay where he was left, at the side of the road. The light from the lamppost reached him and warmed his side. One pair of shoes passed and made their way somewhere, quickly. Benjie lay alone. His smell had grown to rage then left to explore as the day cooled. He was a mangled clump of grey and congealed blood, a perfect nature morte, a talking-point in an art exhibition. A nearby bush shifted and rustled, then was still. A few minutes later the heads of three grey squirrels appeared above the foliage, swung left, right and forward in unison and their bodies promptly followed, taking quick, careful steps through the leaves. Hazelnuts were clasped to their bellies as a last respect and their eyes glittered in the light of the lamp. They stopped in front of the bird, placed the nuts on the ground and began to speak. “Our father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name”, one of them started sombrely, snout to the sky, at once holy and reverent. “ Not the place, nor the time, Samuel”, the squirrel next to him cut in, shaking his head. “And you’re not of the religious persuasion”. Affronted, Samuel turned to him and replied, “But what art thee saying? How could thee doubt it? And if I ain’t, well, Theodore, what life in the world don’t need prayer?” Then, an answer of the darkest blue, perhaps the satin-ripple fall of a figure’s cloak and for five long moments they could not see. Instead, their blindness gave their ears the power to evoke Westminster, to hear Big Ben chime midnight. The great bell swung, heavy, under a spell and between each deep gong the three squirrels fumbled for the gasp of their breaths, the only other sounds they could hear. Each gong pronounced them alive and Benjie dead. Then, just as suddenly, everything was as it was. Only, by degrees, the temperature began to rise. Not that the squirrels had noticed yet. “What the bleedinell ‘appened, there?” Theodore recalled seeing Samuel’s expression before. It was when they thought they were going to be caught, in the last robbery. The fear had started in his foot paws which were rooted to the ground on tip-toes. His knees had wobbled and his hips had followed, shaking up to a face that sweated with the concentration of staying alive. His shoulders and his arms had held a trembling trophy of bananas in the air above his head. He appeared as though doing some form of complex Latin dance. The monkeys of London Zoo had torn and “a-a-a-a-ah”ed overhead, enraged. Samuel and Theodore sold the bunch to some rich and greedy pigs for twice the going rate to make up for it all, over at the city farm in Vauxhall. But Samuel’s face relaxed into its habitual amused order. “I’d have asked Maxwell but e’d be no help” he said, regarding the third squirrel lovingly. “Dumb pet.”
Shortly after, Winston was on his shift. He started at Putney Bridge and as usual began to remove the chewing gum from the pavement. It was easier now that they had given him the stick and claw. It was kinder on his back and he could play games with it. He challenged himself with picking up a bottle top in one go or tweezing an apple core by its stalk. The bridge was wide and long and only ever very busy if the rowing was on. He crossed it, picking, then walked back, shaking his head yet secretly pleased at litter freshly dropped. He crossed the road and worked his way up the other side, picking. He would then negotiate Putney High Street and at this point it would become extra challenging. Today, though, had been unusually hot. The heat made crispy the teenagers, flirting, flustered, often leering, they would prowl and parade. It slowed and made sweaty the sports fans who he’d see again later, jeering and punching each other. As always, Winston became tangled in leads guiding guinea pigs for dogs but today they yipped at his ankles in irritation too. Like normal, prams blindly and sometimes not so blindly pushed into him but today he ducked, dived and had to weave around charging children too, loaded with ice-creams and whatever else they’d commanded. Winston had to fight the urge to use his stick and claw like a baseball bat. He passed the station to the hill and it was simpler, quicker and he would finish at the top of it. He was outside the Green Man pub and about to begin his last cigarette butt mission of the day when he saw Benjie. He stepped into the road, bent down and picked up the bird. The body was hot and heated Winston’s glove until the latex began to melt. He moved to the side and softly placed the bird in the curb’s cool shadow and protection. The people at the bus stop looked at Winston in a dismay that was quickly overcome by a familiar contempt.