Halifax regional council’s mobile shower pilot project started as a well-intentioned idea to provide hygiene to people who are homeless.
A six-stall shower trailer was set up in a field in Dartmouth, ready to use, last November.
But in the month it was open, it was never used.
A new report written by Jo Parker, the program co-ordinator of Mainline Needle Exchange in Halifax, examines the reasons the project failed and makes recommendations for making such a service more accessible to the population it’s meant to serve.
Project ended early
The project was approved in September 2021, and was meant to run for nine weeks at a cost of $16,999.
The shower trailer was open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from Nov. 1 to Nov. 30.
The project was undertaken in conjunction with Mainline Needle Exchange, and the shower was staffed by peers and employees of the organization. Security was provided by a private firm.
Shower supplies and towels were provided, and staff had cleaning equipment to sanitize the showers after each use. Mainline Needle Exchange undertook community outreach and distributed flyers to inform people of the service.
But it wasn’t that simple. The showers were closed for more than two weeks because they weren’t used.
Jeff Karabanow was not involved in the project, but is a director of the Dalhousie School of Social Work community clinic, and studies populations experiencing homelessness.
He said in order for a project like this to work, the voices of the people from the group most affected must be included from the start.
“They’re living this experience, and they have very thoughtful and eloquent kind of experiences to what they need and what kind of supports would work, where they will work, and what kind of resources are most important to kind of help them survive homelessness.”
Clients consulted for feedback
Ten clients were surveyed by Mainline after the pilot project ended, and brought up four main issues.
Most people said the location was inconvenient and not easy to access without transportation. Another issue was the weather. By the time the shower opened, it was cold out and people preferred to stay in their tents or shelters.
“Resources tend to be used best when they’re extremely accessible and they’re in the world of the people who are going to be using them,” Karabanow said.
Lack of privacy was also mentioned. The fact that the shower trailer was in a field, quite visible from the road and nearby buildings was noted as a concern.
Mainline’s clients also said they had other options for bathing that were more accessible than the Dartmouth location, like using a shower at a friend’s house or using the sink in a public washroom.
Mainline staff were also consulted for the report, and they raised two additional issues with the project.
The first was the standalone nature of the showers. They were isolated from other necessary services and supports.
Staff also said they didn’t have enough time to spread the word about the showers given there was no fixed opening date. Problems securing a location and getting the shower up and running pushed the opening back by a month.
The report made suggestions on how to improve such a project going forward, starting with the idea that a shower facility must be housed in a brick-and-mortar building that also provides other supports and services. Some of the people consulted said they used the Adsum House/Out Of The Cold Community Organization showers on Gottingen Street for this reason.
Other recommendations included undertaking the project in warmer months, in a location close to where people who are homeless are staying. If this is not possible, the report suggested providing transportation like a shuttle service or dedicated bus pass.
The report’s final recommendation was that while the project was well-intentioned, more community engagement is needed in such a process.
Karabanow said though a project of this nature is just a “band-aid” solution and doesn’t mitigate the need for safe and stable housing, it could be tried again.
“I think some of the recommendations are extremely thoughtful,” he said about the report. “You know, add [the shower service] to existing resources, make it much, much more accessible, make it safer, and then kind of launch it again.”