It’s 7:30 a.m. on a brisk Wednesday morning. More than 20 men cluster around the wire fence outside Casa Maria Soup Kitchen. A white Ford van drives around the corner pulling a trailer decorated with biblical quotes.
A hot, refreshing shower has arrived.
The shuttle belongs to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, located on North Paseo del Norte. It arrives at Casa Maria Soup Kitchen twice a month on Wednesday mornings at 8 a.m. and stays until 11 a.m. offering free showers and hygiene products.
Two men climb out of the front seats and one places a large white sign that says: “Free hot showers.” Thirty minutes later, the boxes, chairs and tables are arranged and volunteers wait for their first taker.
A volunteer peels open an extra-large navy tupperware box to reveal disposable razors, toothbrushes, mouthwash and soap. Volunteers sort plastic Ziploc bags stuffed with freshly packaged Fruit of the Loom socks, men’s boxers, ladies’ underwear and t-shirts.
“We used to hand out our socks and underwear before they would sit down for a shower. Then they started just taking the free items without showering,” says Charlotte Smith, a church member and regular volunteer for the shower shuttle. “We’ve gotten pretty good at knowing who really actually wants the shower and who just wants the free stuff.”
Each individual who takes a shower receives a plastic bag with one body towel and one washcloth. They have the choice of short or long socks, boxers or briefs, and a t-shirt. Church members and outsourced donations provide the items for the project.
The first man to approach the table selects his clothing and decides on lime green shower flip-flops. George Moreno unloads his large backpack onto the pavement and unties his army boots. His socks are worn and bloodstained from blisters.
“That felt amazing,” says Moreno, a 61-year-old homeless veteran after his shower. “You see, I’m breaking in my boots in and need this foot powder to help with my blisters,” leaving a cloud of white powder as he dumps it down into his left shoe.
According to Smith, Moreno is a regular and takes a shower almost every morning the shuttle is outside Casa Maria.
“I’m homeless just trying to survive,” Moreno says who was first in line at 8:07 a.m.
The shuttle is equipped with six showers, three for women and three for men. It was purchased by the church and refurbished by volunteers in 2014. The church wanted to offer the shower where food was served because people most likely congregated outside those areas, says Will Deboer, a volunteer who helped renovate the shuttle.
“It’s all about those we help,” Deboer says. “It’s all worth it when you see how appreciative they all are.”
Propane tanks heat the shower water instantly. Casa Maria allows the shuttle to plug into their electricity. Water is supplied from the house across the street from Casa Maria.
“That shower was more than what I thought,” says Corinne Rivera, a landscaper who lives in a trailer but did not have hot running water this morning. “I’ve seen the shuttle before but never gave it a shot. I am happy I did today though.”
Often times the church will print out a schedule for people to take so they will know where the shuttle will be every week, Smith says. The shuttle also sets up on Sunday mornings at Z Mansion, on North Church Avenue.
The shuttle costs around $5,000 a year to run, Deboer says, and is a community project open to the public for donations and volunteers.
At 10:30 a.m., the showers have been consistently busy. While one man walks into the shower, another man leaves with a smile on his freshly cleaned face.
“I like how they come by with their head down, and after their shower they come out smiling with their heads up,” Smith says. “They almost have a hop in their step as they walk away to start their day.”
Alexandra Adamson is a reporter for El Independiente, a service of the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org