Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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The District could soon see a vehicle equipped with bathrooms and showers providing homeless residents with the modern conveniences that many others take for granted.

At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange last Tuesday proposed the Mobile Hygiene Pilot Program Amendment Act of 2015, which would commission the D.C. Department of Human Services to re-purpose a city-owned bus with “hot showers, clean toilets, and hygiene products.” Such vehicles already operate in Honolulu and San Francisco, where they’ve met some success.

“Many homeless residents struggle to find public restrooms during the hours the shelters are closed, and for homeless residents with physical disabilities, walking the District in search of a restroom can be a daunting and dangerous task,” Orange said at the D.C. Council’s Committee of the Whole session last Tuesday. “The pilot program would be just one bus, but if it proves successful, eventually each of the eight wards would be served by a mobile hygiene unit.”

The bill would also require DHS and D.C.’s Interagency Council on Homelessness to report to the Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser on the program’s progress. It gives DHS 120 days to implement the pilot once the bill becomes law and a two-year period to administer the pilot. The mayor would allocate an initial $200,000 for the program, while DHS simultaneously establishes a fund for it, financed in part through donations and sponsorships.

Marcy Bernbaum, a member of the People for Fairness Coalition—a District-based organization devoted to improving the lives of the city’s homeless—writes in an email to City Desk that the bill is “a great idea,” in part because lack of shower access affects one’s health. The group earlier this year launched a Public Restroom Initiative downtown to advocate for more public toilets that are “clean, safe, available to everyone 24/7, and economical.” A report they compiled found that “there are only 7 restrooms open to the public” at all hours downtown, and that four of the seven are privately owned; additionally, “unless you know the area, you will have a hard time finding a restroom that will let you in during the day and evening,” since many aren’t marked.

Arguably, however, Orange’s legislation doesn’t go far enough to assuage the problems D.C.’s homeless face. Kurt Runge, advocacy director at Miriam’s Kitchen, explains in an email that the bill “could help address some very important basic needs in the short term,” but leaves the larger question of homelessness unanswered. “Housing is the solution to homelessness,” he says. “People need a home of their own to take care of their personal needs. Although providing showers could meet an important need, how many people could get into housing with the funding that would be required to operate it? Are there other unmet needs that should take priority?”

Last month, Bowser announced a significant expansion of D.C.’s human services, including a year-round shelter system with the aim to ultimately place homeless residents in transitional or permanent housing. When Pope Francis visited the District last week, he focused on the plight of the poor, and sparked an additional public commitment from the mayor to end homelessness.

“Pope Francis has issued a call to action across the globe… to come together to end homelessness and make sure that no person is overlooked or forgotten,” Bowser said in a social-media video timed for Francis’ first day in D.C. “I am personally inspired by the pope’s words and actions.”

The report required by Orange’s bill would contain the below data to evaluate the pilot’s impact:

  • “The number of individuals served
  • The number of staff required to implement the pilot program
  • The cost of operating the pilot program
  • An analysis of the effectiveness of the pilot program
  • Recommendations to improve the pilot program
  • Projections as to the cost of implementing and expanding the pilot”