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Cambridge Opens Public Showers As Housing Instability Grows

First Church Shelter director Jim Stewart enters one of the showers in a mobile shower unit parked in the Church Street parking lot in Harvard Square, Cambridge. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
First Church Shelter director Jim Stewart enters one of the showers in a mobile shower unit parked in the Church Street parking lot in Harvard Square, Cambridge. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Two trailers opened for business Monday in a parking lot in Harvard Square. The long white units, next to a Harvard computer lab and across from a Mexican food restaurant, include an amenity many of us take for granted: a hot shower.

“Poor and homeless people have always had trouble accessing hygiene facilities,” says First Church Shelter director Jim Stewart. “Following the onset of the pandemic, shelters were forced to de-congregate and there just hasn’t been access that people have counted on in the past.”

First Church Shelter will staff and assist with use of the 10 showers, two of which are wheelchair accessible. City Councillor Marc McGovern says Cambridge is spending $12,000 a month to rent the units. Installation, which includes water, sewer and electrical connections, cost about $10,000.

Jim Stewart check over one of the shower stalls in the mobile unit. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Jim Stewart check over one of the shower stalls in the mobile unit. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Cambridge rented port-a-potties early in the pandemic for people who had used bathrooms in libraries, restaurants or other buildings that shut down in March. McGovern says Cambridge started talking about opening showers in April, but finding the units, as well as a location that was large enough, handicap accessible, close to plumbing and electricity, was complicated.

“It’s taken longer than anyone had hoped but I’m glad to see it’s happening,” he said.

McGovern says he doesn’t know of other free-standing showers in Massachusetts for people who are homeless. The National Coalition for the Homeless does not have a tally of these services around the country but there seems to be growing interest. Associate director Megan Hustings says these projects, which began and have expanded on the West Coast, are now emerging in New York, Washington and other East Coast cities.

“We’re seeing more people living outdoors during COVID and places with showers have had to limit services” she says. “The coming eviction crisis — so many people out of work — all of these things compound to create much more need for shelter and hygiene services.”

A sign reminding people to observe social distancing, outside the shower units. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A sign reminding people to observe social distancing, outside the shower units. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

In Cambridge a few business owners near the public showers are concerned about the impact, says Harvard Square Business Association executive director Denise Jillson, “but other than that I haven’t received any negative feedback about this.”

Jillson says the HSBA has worked with the city and social service groups to offer meals, water, masks, electrical outlets and other services for people who need extra support during the pandemic.

“If there are issues, the city responds in a way that is positive and thoughtful, so we’re hopeful,” she says.

There have been concerns about people overdosing, undetected, in public bathrooms and showers. Stewart says his staff will make sure clients have privacy while staying safe.

Each shower in the mobile unit has a safe needle disposal box. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Each shower in the mobile unit has a safe needle disposal box. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Harvard University is loaning Cambridge the parking lot for this project.

The shower units are expected to remain in place at least through the end of the year. This week, the showers are open on weekdays from 1-4 p.m. The organizers say they will reassess in a few weeks, based on feedback, and adjust the hours if needed.

This article was originally published on October 19, 2020.

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