I’m sitting at a table in the middle of a cafe.

At the table to my left, someone is talking very loudly. I put on my earphones, blast on my iPod and tune him out.

At the table in front of me, someone is viewing p0rn on his laptop. I rotate my seat, so that I don’t have to see what he’s looking at.

At the table to my right, someone is quietly reading a newspaper. But he smells really awful. I move to a table at the far side of the cafe, because I am incapable of switching off the scent receptors in my nose. I mentally apologize for shunning him. I hope the quiet news-paper reader doesn’t notice.

Hygiene is a challenge, if you are homeless. What facilities are open and/or accessible to the general public, where a homeless person could not be barred from entry? Which facilities are free, or cheap enough that a homeless person could collect enough spare change to afford?

Toilets are the easiest: public libraries, fast food restaurants, any building open to the public. Laundry is a realistic possibility: coin-operated laundromats are widespread. There are even car washes for cars, but no people-washes for people. (It’s a little weird, if you think about it that way. Except for this one case (at the 18 second mark).) Bathing is an exponentially greater challenge. Where could you find showers open to you? (Even some homeless shelters don’t have bathing facilities.)

In the US, we have an obsession with daily showers and deodorant, and a big thing against body odor (BO). In contrast, Europeans are more lackadaisical about bathing – notice how much perfume they use, in part to mask BO. Maybe that’s why Americans are more sensitive to bodily odors, because we’re not as desensitized to those types of smells … anymore. Apparently, Americans used to bathe only 1-3 times each week.*

Being able to keep clean is critical, when you are trying to maintain personal dignity and social respect, especially when you are homeless. Having people wrinkling their nose when they pass by you probably hurts your self-esteem. It will maintain your health/well-being, boost your morale, and even help you get and keep a job.

There are several examples and options for solutions for bathing when homeless. But it’s all piecemeal, nothing that addresses the large scale, systematic problem.

  1. Public bath houses are an established part of some historic cultures: northern Chinese (澡堂), Japanese (浴場), Turkish/Central Asian (hamam), Russian (баня), which were open to all. They charge a nominal fee. They are usually segregated by sex, with separate facilities, or open to men and women on different days. Everyone is required to scrub down thoroughly with soap/shampoo before soaking in the communal pools. For those which offer a co-ed option, users wear bathing suits. But the bath houses are dying out even in those countries, as indoor plumbing and piped hot water has become the norm. They function more as a socializing/cultural experience, less a hygienic necessity. (There are even a handful in the Bay Area, which cater to those ethnic enclaves, such as the Kabuki Springs in San Francisco Japantown.)
  2. In the second half of the 20th century, Bay Area bath houses gained a notorious reputation as places where gays went to connect. But as homosexuality is more acceptable, and with other avenues for hooking up, those bath houses have almost all closed. Some bath houses also catered to a more ‘hippie’ clientele, offering hot tubs and saunas as well. Today, spas have become very popular, but usually market themselves as upscale and exclusive.
  3. In south and south-east Asia, many people bathe for free in rivers, canals, ponds (tanks), lakes, etc. They bathe in public, each with a sarong wrapped around their privates. The practice is not a practical option in the Bay Area — there is a drought; the water is cold; there would be concerns with soap pollution impacts on wildlife; and there is no easy access to creek banks.
  4. In the Bay Area, some large employers and building managers provide showers. The showers are for employees/tenants after sweating on their bike ride to work, or exercising. Only for the handful of homeless people who happen to work for an such employer or building could this be an option.
  5. Many cities also have public swimming pools with separate showers for females and males. They usually charge user fees, which includes the use of the showers with the swim. Most pools are only open summers; some are open year-round. It is conceivable that public swimming pool showers could be made available to homeless people for showering? Most swimmers, on first instinct, would likely oppose the idea of sharing the showers with the homeless, so such a scheme would require a lot of thoughtful planning, and education and outreach to the swimmers.
  6. There’s an innovative approach in a project called Dignity on Wheels, which is launching in East Palo Alto. It’s a shower truck – a vehicle fitted with showers and toilets, which can be driven and parked at different locations (analogous to a food truck!) for the homeless to come use. (There’s a similar project called Lava Mae in San Francisco.) The concept is very promising, although it’s hard to imagine if it can be scaled up to serve the over 7,000 homeless people in Santa Clara county. Please consider donating some money to Dignity on Wheels, as I did, even as it is in my own self-interest.
  • When we went on a historical tour around Pendleton, Oregon, we found out that in the 1800’s, Chinese who ran the laundries would also have a hip-bath in another part of the shop. While a customer’s clothes were being washed, he could have a hot bath himself. The bath water was not changed between uses, if there were men queuing up to bathe. There might have been a discount if you were at the bak end of the queue.

2 thoughts on “BATHING

  1. I love the way you segue from a personal moment in a cafe, to the plight of a homeless person needing and wanting a shower, back to a personal tour that revealed how bathing was approached in the1800s. I had a similar moment Friday…it was pouring cats and dogs and I had to walk about a 1/4 of a mile from the bus stop to the testing center. I had left my umbrella at home and was soaking wet, cold, and anxious about my test. After the test, I had to return to the bus stop and it was still cold and raining but I was relieved that the test was over and my mind wandered to your blog and the homeless and what if my day was destined to stay wet and cold with no respite in sight. As my last bus turned the corner onto Hedding off Coleman and we approached the Guadalupe River trail, there was an older man standing in the rain….under a tree with no leaves….soaked to the bone. His jacket and pants clung to him…providing little warmth. He looked bewildered and forsaken. Maybe if there had been a Dignity on Wheels near him and some dry clothes…maybe…
    I will certainly check out Dignity on Wheels and donate to them.

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