A Black man’s hand, reaching upwards under a steady shower stream.
Image credit: Jakayla Toney on unsplash.com

The images on social media show a gleaming silver trailer outfitted with three private shower rooms. Inside the rooms are a heated shower, toilet, sink, mirror. The images were shared by a librarian in Georgia to support the work of Flowing with Blessings, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that serves unhoused people. A big part of the group’s mission and work is providing free showers and hygiene assistance to those in need.

Outside the trailers, parked that day at a public library, free gift bags were available, stuffed with toiletries and clothes, including new warm socks. As the website of Flowing with Blessings states, “We believe that every person deserves to feel clean, comfortable, and valued…we aim to empower those facing homelessness and help them rebuild their lives with dignity.”

So, what does hygiene have to do with justice, and how will the escalating climate crisis impact access to clean water and health?

Showers as a First Step

“It is an endeavor aimed at restoring human dignity to a population that is too often overlooked.” 

Flowing with Blessings was founded in 2022, after two years of research in tandem with LavaMae, a nonprofit in San Francisco, CA, that, until 2023, supported the organization and training for groups to bring showers and hygiene services to people, including toolkits and an online curriculum for establishing mobile hygiene programs.

That concept is growing in popularity, especially since the pandemic escalated concerns about health and personal safety. In Los Angeles, CA, the LA Sanitation and Environment department’s Mobile Hygiene Unit program marked its second year in 2020. The units “park in areas heavily trafficked by LA’s shelterless populations and provide scheduled services including bathrooms, showers, clean clothes and tent exchanges,” according to Alive! Starting with a single trailer, the program expanded to six trailers by its second year. As Alive! wrote about those experiencing homelessness, “A regular shower and change of clothes, provided by those they can trust, is sometimes the first step toward securing their own shelter or even a sustaining job.”

Similar mobile hygiene units are operating in cities around the United States, including in New Orleans, LA, and Lancaster County, PA. As Penn Medicine News wrote about the mobile shower unit, it’s “more than a facility for personal hygiene. It is an endeavor aimed at restoring human dignity to a population that is too often overlooked.” Jennifer L. Koppel, director of Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health’s office for the Lancaster County Homelessness Coalition, told the publication, “We’ve heard for a long time that the individuals we serve who live outside really want showers. They don’t have the money to join a gym for access to their facilities, and there aren’t public showers in our community.”

With people of color, especially Black and Indigenous populations, experiencing higher rates of homelessness than White people, Koppel also stressed the importance of using a “racial equity lens when we create and deploy services.” As the American Public Health Association wrote, “Racism and other ‘isms’ are forces that determine the distribution of the social determinants of health, including health care.” NPQ continues to report on health disparities, noting the pandemic “laid bare the social, economic, and racial discrimination that underlies the US healthcare system.”

Many facilities, such as public restrooms in parks or libraries, shuttered at the start of COVID and remained closed into 2021 and beyond, further limiting access to hygiene.

Even on a basic level, access to such simple health necessities as a safe place to wash one’s hands, soap, or a change of clean clothes is not guaranteed. “Housing insecure populations do not have consistent and reliable access to facilities that would fulfill these needs, which poses a large public health and human rights issue,” according to a 2022 study published in Public Health in Practice.

COVID-19 spread rapidly through unhoused populations, underscoring the dire need for hygiene facilities. Many facilities, such as public restrooms in parks or libraries, shuttered at the start of COVID and remained closed into 2021 and beyond, further limiting access to hygiene. Homelessness also leaped up 12 percent by 2023, reflecting the end of pandemic aid and eviction protections, and an increase in rent costs and job losses. As the AP reported, “people becoming homeless for the first time were behind much of the increase.”

Climate Change and Water

As the numbers of unhoused people rise, homelessness is becoming increasingly criminalized in cities across the country. Public camping bans, laws prohibiting people from sleeping in vehicles, panhandling, and even sharing food are all on the rise. Some public restrooms have reopened since the height of the pandemic—some have not—but few are unlocked and available overnight. Yet punishments have increased for public urination. Cities from Las Vegas, NV, to Honolulu, HI, to Denver, CO, are escalating the crackdown on their unhoused populations, from camping bans to closed shelters. Massive police sweeps violently clear encampments, forcing people to move elsewhere and often destroying their belongings, including items necessary for health and safety such as tents, blankets, stoves, and water bottles.

People who are unhoused often lack a consistent, safe water supply for bathing, cleaning, drinking, or preparing food, and are at increased risk from dehydration. Water can sometimes be found in park fountains, fire hydrants, spigots at gas stations, or businesses like malls—but access to such water is limited and procuring it can be illegal or dangerous. The potability of water is also increasingly questionable, a quality instability worsened by the climate crisis.

According to the EPA, “Climate change threatens the quality of source water through increased runoff of pollutants and sediment, decreased water availability from drought and saltwater intrusion, as well as adversely affecting overall efforts to maintain water quality.” The impacts of the climate crisis are more severe storms, which can include heavy downfalls of rain. Rather than providing a source of safe water, these heavy rains can worsen the amount of pollution and sediment in bodies of water like streams and rivers.

Conversely, climate change droughts can dry up sources of fresh water. The higher temperatures around the globe also increase the risk of growth of algae and bacteria in water. During climate emergencies such as tornadoes or floods, utilities—including water services—can be disrupted, cutting off sources of water.

Hygiene…is not only a concern of safety but an issue of justice….A way to “restore dignity and offer fresh hope.”

Restoring Dignity

Some unhoused people rely on donations of bottled water. While not consistently reliable, such donations can be used for drinking and cooking but still leave the problem of hygiene, which is not only a concern of safety but an issue of justice.

As Flowing with Blessings noted, hygiene is a way to “restore dignity and offer fresh hope through showers.” A hot shower can help with physical issues, from muscle soreness to circulation problems, and reduce stress while improving confidence. As one person who utilized the mobile shower unit told Atlanta NPR station WABE, “I feel blessed…I feel better. It makes you feel good knowing that your body is clean….As they say, cleanliness is next to godliness.”

Mobile units like trailer showers are a way to help many people quickly and to bring assistance to people where they are. Flowing with Blessings parks at public libraries, parks, shelters, and parking lots, meeting unhoused people where they feel comfortable going and interacting with the community. That’s a strategy that nonprofits bringing preventative care like mammograms, well checks, and vaccines have been utilizing for decades—and it’s one that may become even more important as climate change continues to reshape how and where people can live.

Hot showers are a basic service but a simple and accessible way to help, with instant results. As Flowing with Blessings founder Nicky Crawford told WABE, “The blessings that I get is seeing these people being able to take a shower…and have a sense of dignity for today.”