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