Desperate to Get Clean
By Matt Hoffman
Maybe you have gone camping? At the end of a weekend in the outdoors without the comforts of civilization, you may have found
that the best part about returning home is the chance to shower and to sleep. In the wilderness, there are no showers. (Except for waterfalls and rain.) That is why God gave us the ability and knowledge to create water treatment facilities and indoor plumbing and showers, bathtubs and flushing toilets. God has been gracious with these water resources so that we may share freely with others.
When I was alone—sleeping alone in public, collecting dirt in layers and becoming more convinced that no one cared at all—my largest
concern was cleanliness. I didn’t want to look homeless and dirty. I didn’t want to stink and repel people. I didn’t want to slide further away from civilized living and a chance to regain my life. How could I get a job looking and smelling like I had been camping for a week?
Also, I have oily skin. Sometimes I feel the need to shower multiple times a day, and I still might not feel clean. On the street, it was rare
that I could shower multiple times in a week. My counselor at the homeless agency liked to tell me that her father would say, “Missy, don’t even talk to me until I’ve had a shower, a shave and a cup of coffee.” When you are on the street, it’s difficult to tell people that they cannot talk to you until you’ve showered, because you don’t have access to one.
It’s hard to tell others the truth. It’s hard to say “I am scared. I am alone. My teeth hurt. I feel dirty. I feel unloved. I feel neglected. I am
afraid.” When you try to say it and people ignore you, that makes it even worse. I felt dirty, oily, unwashed, ugly and gross. I had nowhere to hide. My struggles were public. I had no room to go into and cry and bury my head in my pillow. I had no stuffed animals to talk to. I had no privacy. I could hardly sleep at night for fear that I would be beaten, robbed and raped. I would read in the morning about the crucified homeless man they found in the park and the murdered homeless man they found at the nearby band-shell, and I would be happy that the police were waking me up to check my ID for my safety as opposed to a murderer or a rapist. If you were going to wake me up in the night, I hoped you were the police. Once on the bench at Independence Park, I was awoken at 3:30 in the morning by a lecherous man caressing my thigh as though I had invited it simply by being there. I had never been so stupefyingly appalled and repulsed by my entire community than I was at that moment. He thought my repulsion was funny. He was surprised that I was upset. I was not laughing. I rode my bike to the garden at the church on Hawthorne and cried afterwards for twenty minutes. All I
wanted was a shower. All I wanted was my life back. All I wanted was to sleep without some strange man rubbing my thigh.
The largest problem I encountered was the difficulty I had staying clean. There are a lot of showering options available, if you have money. Not many homeless people have a secret stash of money lying around. Garden hoses, while they are frigid make excellent showers in the summertime. Get some soap and some shampoo, a bathing suit and some flip flops and anyone’s driveway becomes your own personal shower. It helps to ask their permission first. (If you aren’t able to ask permission and they confront you, it can help your case to gently remind them that they didn’t ask for your permission to treat you like trash and if they had you would not have granted that permission to begin with.)
This is easiest on weekend days when many homeowners can be found hosing their cars down, watering their lawns or playing with
their pets and children. You might be surprised as to how many of the homeowners around your town might be helpful towards you based upon your own state of mind and their own. If you don’t beg for food, money or other material possessions, most people enjoy helping others out. Many of them even seemed to gleefully savor the chance to spray water on me—certainly doing so was far easier than inviting me into their home. (And they could still feel proud of themselves!)
In 2010, I had been homeless for about two and a half years. I was dirty, unshowered and felt just plain gross. No one wanted to talk with me, get close to me, hire me, listen to me or see me. Being filthy, oil-covered and nasty kept me in a pit of homelessness, self-disgust and public rejection. At this point in time, I had worn out my welcome at the local YMCAs. When I first became homeless, I used the YMCAs to grab a shower every few days. Most YMCAs were very gracious with me. I was appreciative. For some reason, and without warning, the YMCAs began blocking me from showering. It was curious to me, because their method of denial was to deny me that they were ever allowing me to shower to begin with.
Another option I had utilized to shower was the local aquatic center. Unfortunately for me (and for them!), I had exhausted my welcome there also. With those options gone, I turned to showering outdoors. Beyond the garden hoses, which I mentioned previously, I had found solace in the outdoor showers often times found at outdoor pools in apartment complexes and at hotels. It’s interesting, feeling like you have to steal a shower. When you are unwashed, you feel self-conscious in public. You feel like you might carry around a cloud of stench around with you, a cloud of stench that unfortunately irritates those that surround you. When you are dirty, homeless and feeling shamed, you might become convinced that your filth is the only impression that others have of you. It also becomes the only impression you have of yourself. That’s the worst part: a constant and nagging and tangible destroyer of hope and dignity. That’s what
makes it so maddeningly ironic how hard it might be to find a shower if you have the misfortune to find yourself on the streets. Easy access to would be transformational!
Like a thief, I would “break into” local apartment complexes and hotel pools during minimum occupancy times (usually the early morning, sometimes mid-afternoon), and, being careful to avoid detection by groundskeepers and security, I would shower quickly and then blend in by sunning myself dry. Often I would be chased out by security. I do not know if word had gotten out about me or if I was just easily identifiable as a vagrant, but I found out rather quickly as time went on, that I was more and more unwelcome at more and more local communities.
When I ran out of other options, one of my favorite last resorts was the shower outside of a certain children’s wading pool in an upscale public park. If you haven’t been to this park, it is one of my favorites. There are basketball courts, nature trails, a great picnic area, swings and a wading pool. Adjacent to the pool is a showering area to make sure all of the children have rinsed off properly before and after they enter the wading pool area. This pool and park is in a beautiful area inhabited by some of our city’s most influential and exclusive residents. Their lovely enclave is generally free from people on the streets and any undesirables.
Very early one beautiful June morning, I decided that I was in need of a shower. I had been chased out of many of my regular showering spots, and knew that the wading pool shower would be available, refreshing and sanitizing.
And it was.
The hot soapy water streamed through my hair and down my face and body, rinsing off the grime, oiliness, shame, rejection and homelessness. It ran down my tired legs, pooled around my battered feet, and disappeared into the drain. I picked up my bag and stepped out of the bathhouse, saw the sunrise breaking through the trees, and felt—for a moment—hopeful, clean,
normal and human.