Jul. 21—HAVERHILL — While living under a bridge in Lawrence, Julio Meran often went weeks and sometimes months without the opportunity to take a shower.
Now that he's 19 years distant from life on the streets, Meran, 43, is providing men and women with nowhere to go something he could not easily obtain when he was living on the street and mired in substance abuse.
As part of his nonprofit, all-volunteer Merrimack Valley Dream Center organization, Meran purchased a $53,000 four-season restroom and shower trailer that is now in operation at Common Ground Ministry on Winter Street.
He launched his Mobile Hygiene Service last Monday at Common Ground where a range of services are offered to homeless men and women.
The trailer houses two separate shower units, with toilets and sinks, and is air conditioned in the summer and heated in the winter for year-round use.
Volunteers disinfect each unit after use.
Those who register for a hot shower also receive free toiletries such as toothpaste, toothbrushes, disposable shavers, shaving cream and disposable sandals for use when showering. Men and women receive new underwear and women receive new bras and personal care items.
"Being able to take a shower and have access to hygiene products is a fundamental human right and helps restore a person's dignity," said Meran, who is looking to purchase another trailer for Lawrence's homeless community. As an add-on feature, it will contain a washer and dryer and the two trailers will swap positions weekly so that those in need in Haverhill can do their laundry as well.
Meran, who works in the Information Technology field, purchased the trailer with money from a grant from the Cummings Foundation along with private donations and donations from Riverside Church in Haverhill and the International Family Church of North Reading.
The Merrimack Valley Dream Center was recently awarded a $100,000 grant from the Cummings Foundation. Meran's nonprofit, which is based at 60 Island St. in Lawrence, will receive $25,000 each year for four years to assist the Merrimack Valley's residents who are most in need.
Meran can never forget his days on the streets of his hometown of Lawrence, beginning at age 15, and how difficult it was to obtain clean clothing along with a clean body.
"Being dirty on the outside I felt shamed and had low self esteem but when I got into a program and had access to a shower it helped me to restore some dignity as I felt clean," he said. "Many times I'd go to a fast food restaurant for a bird bath, which is where you wash up in a sink. It's not well accepted and we got kicked out a lot. Some people used the Merrimack River, but it's not that clean."
Richard Torres, 57, has been living on the streets of Haverhill for two years and works as a volunteer at Common Ground, where he spends much of his time.
"It felt great to take a shower here," said Torres, one of the first to use the new shower trailer. "It's a blessing to have this available to members of the homeless community."
Common Ground will have the trailer on site Monday through Thursday from about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with plans to expand to six days a week.
"We can accept about 30 people a day and each person is given a half hour inside the trailer," said Ron Mills, CEO of Common Ground. "We provide all the linens as well.
"We've been working to get this kind of facility in Haverhill for the last four years and by partnering with Julio's nonprofit we were able to make this happen."
In partnership with Off the Grid Unsheltered, an organization that Mills chairs and interacts weekly with Haverhill's homeless population, the group came up with a list of 21 things that people living on the street said they would like. That list includes toilets, five of which are available at Common Ground; two indoors, one outdoors and two inside the shower trailer.
"Other needs include laundry service, we're working on with the Dream Center," Mills said.
Other needs that we provide include the internet, phone/tablet charging, clothing, food and a place to eat as we serve 40 to 60 people daily — mostly homeless and also low-income," Mills said.
Meran said he is working with Lawrence Mayor Brian DePeña and Lawrence fire officials to find a suitable location for a portable shower unit to serve Lawrence.
"We also have plans for pop-up care villages," he said.