‘Private life in public space.’ Charlotte nonprofits fill hygiene gap for homeless.

Laura Gorecki cleans up after a guest at Project Outpour outside Hickory Grove Library in Charlotte, on Nov. 21, 2021. (Khadejeh Nikouyeh)
·5 min read

There was the family of five living in their car, excited to take the kids to the park once they’d gotten cleaned up.

There was the man who happened to pass by, having walked more than two miles in desperate search of a restroom. They come on bikes, on foot and in their cars seeking out a hot shower, toiletries and the privacy to freshen up.

These are the people Laura Gorecki thinks about as she sets up Project Outpour’s mobile shower truck four days a week in library and church parking lots around Charlotte.

People experiencing homelessness often are deprived of the most basic resources to meet their daily needs, including access to food and a safe, quiet place to sleep. But perhaps overlooked is the ability to meet one’s hygiene needs, including reliable places to safely use the restroom, shower or do laundry.

In Charlotte, several nonprofit organizations have recently created mobile hygiene units offering showers, restrooms and laundry for people experiencing homelessness or housing instability.

That desire to meet basic human needs with compassion is reflected in Gorecki’s title as Project Outpour’s chief dignity officer. Early this year the organization began offering shower and restroom services from the mobile unit, as well as toiletries, fresh undergarments and clothing.

“If people aren’t staying in a shelter, they have nowhere they can reliably take a shower or go to the bathroom,” Gorecki said. “They’re going without or using a water spigot, using the bathroom outside. It’s not only bad for them, it’s a public health problem.

“Most of they people we see, we’re the only shower they get each week.”

One recent Friday morning, a steady stream of visitors came to the parking lot of the Hickory Grove library branch in east Charlotte.

Joseph, a regular, was there right when it opened. He’s been living outside on the east side about four or five months.

“It’s fantastic,” he said of the services. “I told them, ‘I don’t know what I would do without y’all.’”

The current Project Outpour sites, mostly in east and west Charlotte, were chosen for their proximity to people who need them, Gorecki said.

She’s found partners in the local library and churches, she said, which have enough parking to maneuver the pickup truck hauling the trailer, as well as water, sewer and electricity hookups.

‘Where else are they supposed to go?’

American cities were not designed to prioritize public accommodations like restrooms outside of private businesses that might have limited hours or restrict facilities to customers, said Michael Durham, community engagement manager for the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

“The nature of homelessness is that you are living your private life in public space,” Durham said. It can also lead to increased interaction with police and the courts, if people are ticketed for public urination or other offenses.

“Obviously, part of what it means to be human is to use the restroom and if you do not have these basic needs available for folks, then where else are they supposed to go?”

In and around uptown Charlotte, only a few public bathrooms exist, including in Romare Bearden Park, the transit center, and Roof Above’s day center.

And one option recently disappeared with the closure of Main Library, which not only offered restrooms but also a place to get out of the elements, charge phones and access the internet. The uptown branch closed in late October for the construction of a new building and is expected to reopen in 2025.

Praying for a shower truck

Even before the pandemic, leaders of nonprofit Leah’s Hopes and Dreams had been planning to add shower services to the roster, which includes food, housing and education support in Charlotte.

But COVID-19, and the growing concentration of people in the now-dismantled tent encampment near uptown showed founder Shenique Carmichael how needed the service was. They first experimented with shower bags more often used by hikers and campers, to see if people were interested.

They definitely were.

“It was such a relief that these individuals can go to bed at night feeling clean,” she said. “There were a lot of issues like health issues we were able to prevent as a result of giving a simple shower.”

From there they looked for ways to expand.

“We just prayed about a shower truck and God blessed us,” Carmichael said. Through a donation from a local church the organization purchased a truck in March with two shower stalls, sinks and room to get dressed.

“This is something ... they crave to help them have this healthy lifestyle,” she said. “Some of them will come and say ‘I’m taking a shower because I need to go to a job interview but I’m in a tent.’”

Her organization also has recently began offering haircuts.

Another organization, Hope Vibes, last month celebrated its first anniversary of offering laundry and shower services in the Charlotte area. The nonprofit plans to expand its fleet of mobile units, according to its website.

Among the busiest shower operations in the city are those at Roof Above’s day services center. In October, the shelter offered 865 showers and 447 loads of laundry.

Randall Hitt, Roof Above’s chief engagement officer, said for many it’s the only truly private time in their day.

“Experiencing homelessness, your whole life in many respects is on display,” he said. “That’s the one place you might feel like (it’s) a closed door, it’s locked, I’m safe, there’s nobody around me. Let me just take a minute to take a breath.”

Where to get a shower and how to help:

  • Project Outpour operates four days a week at four different sites, with a schedule on its website. Nonprofit leaders say they could expand services with additional funding. More information about donations and volunteer opportunities at projectoutpour.org.

  • Leah’s Hopes and Dreams offers meals, showers and haircuts Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings on the corner of Phifer Avenue and North Tryon Street. The organization is in need of hygiene items such as shampoo and soap. More information is available at leahshopesanddreams.org.

  • Upcoming locations for the Hope Vibes shower and laundry services are on the organization’s website, hopevibes.org. The website also offers information about donation and volunteer opportunities.

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