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Henry, a patron of the Kitsilano shower program, in front of his belongings

For homeless Vancouverites, community centres meet a need — sort of

Stanley Woodvine knows the value of access to a good shower.

By Leah Siegel and Hina Imam , in City , on December 28, 2018

Stanley Woodvine knows the value of access to a good shower. Woodvine, who has been homeless in Vancouver for the past 13 years, has said that finding a place to shower can be tough.

“From 2008 to 2010, I had a full-time job that saw me often having to start at 7 a.m. and work sometimes until 3 a.m.,” said Woodvine, who actively tweets and runs a blog about his experiences on the street.

Back when Woodvine worked as a custodian at the Vancouver Masonic Centre, he only knew of one site downtown offering public showers, and its hours never coincided with his schedule.

“As a result, a lot of my ‘bathing’ took place on the fly in public washrooms,” he said, “much to the annoyance, I’m sure, of some non-homeless restaurant patrons.”

The shower situation in the city of Vancouver

While free shower programs are found primarily around the Downtown Eastside, there is a lack of such programs in the rest of the city.

Penny Rogers shows the Kitsilano Community Centre’s storage room where the program stores shower supplies.

One popular shower program in Kitsilano, a neighbourhood whose residents typically belong to a higher income bracket, has been serving homeless Vancouverites for nearly two decades.

“Here on the west side there are not a lot of services for people. They don’t want to go to downtown. This is their neighbourhood,” said Penny Rogers, founder of the shower program at the Kitsilano Community Centre.

One patron of the Kitsilano shower program is Henry, who spends most of his time along West Broadway. “I’ve been binning here for 15 years,” he said. “I got to Kitsilano and said, ‘Why fix what isn’t broken?’”

Some community centres allow the public to use their showers for free while others charge a fee, but the Kitsilano full-service shower program is an anomaly. Elsewhere, it’s rather uncommon for individuals to take advantage of the free service, said staff at other community centres.

As well, the service isn’t available at some facilities. Mount Pleasant Community Centre had a drop-in shower facility for three years but “we had to shut it down due to some incidents of violence,” said Darwyn Hermann, a programmer at the centre. 

According to Hermann, competition for limited shower spaces often led to rising tension between patrons. He added how there was also inadequate staff to run the facility, which made it difficult for them to manage it.

Source: 2017 Homeless Count in Metro Vancouver.

Fostering a safe haven

Not all community centre staff are receptive to allowing homeless patrons to use their facilities. Henry said that at some centres, the occasional staff member will act like it’s “their place, and you’re not welcome.” 

To be effective, a program requires trained staff and a proper management system. “It is not just about handing people with a towel and soap but having an effective shower program,” said Denver Snider, the operations manager at The Gathering Place. “We need to understand that these individuals are vulnerable, and staff needs to know how to manage tension if it arises,” he added.

In her volunteer orientation, Rogers encourages participants to “treat everyone like you would treat your grandmother.”

According to Snider, there is an increasing need for shower programs especially during colder weather. Demand for these services varies throughout the year, and it’s about to reach its annual peak with the onset of colder weather.

“We definitely witness a spike during the winters and we schedule them for the following day to meet popular demand,” said Snider. Other centres also confirmed an increase in the number of patrons from November to March. “People have lives outside of this. They have more options like the beach during the summer.”

The increase in Vancouver’s homeless population over the years. Image: City of Vancouver.

The total number of Vancouver’s homeless has been on the rise in recent years, increasing about 36 per cent since 2013.

While acknowledging that access to showers has gotten better in recent years, Woodvine says the city needs more of these programs, preferably with 24-hour access. This would benefit those on the street with irregular work hours, like those he had eight years ago.

“Homelessness is not going away — particularly short-term homelessness,” Woodvine said. Instead of attempting to eradicate it, he argues, we must find quicker solutions to improve living conditions for and preserve the dignity of those on the streets.

For Henry, showering is his first step to self-care. “If you’re clean, if you’ve got clean clothes, you’ve got good morale.”