Those without a home report health issues due to inadequate shower and laundry access in the city, Portland State University study finds. Is a central hygiene facility the answer?

This article has been updated from its original version.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Rick Heine, 48, was sleeping under the Morrison Bridge in January. He says it's hard to get clean in Portland.It may not be a grand revelation that it's challenging for Portland's homeless population to get a shower.

Nonetheless, it is a fact — one with dire public health impacts and other insidious effects that help keep homeless people on the streets.

The problem

Take a few minutes to chat with a homeless person finding refuge under a Portland bridge or in a park, and the issue may come up, even without asking.

"You can't ever clean up. It's hard to get clean," says Rick Heine, a man who moved to the city from St. Louis six months ago and found refuge under the Morrison Bridge during bitter cold days in January.

Despite being an obvious challenge, even backed by recent research completed by Portland State University, it isn't an issue at the forefront of any local policy or initiatives.

Portland State's study surveyed 550 people on the street, many of whom incidentally shared Heine's sentiments.

The shortage has obvious serious public health impacts: 40 percent of people surveyed in the study reported medical problems, such as staph infections, scabies, lice, open sores, endocarditis and urinary tract infections due to lack of hygiene services.

"What happens when people get sick? It makes me sick. I can't imagine what it'd be like to have the flu or food poisoning and living outside," says Lisa Hawash, assistant professor of practice at PSU's School of Social Work. She led a team of students in a graduate-level poverty course to complete the survey over two years. She said "getting sick" was just one issue people mentioned over and over, along with menstrual hygiene.

"There's some really serious catastrophic health issues that people can acquire," says Hawash, "and that came out in a number of ways (in the study)."

So where do people get clean?

Homeless survey respondents reported a number of different ways to generally wash up: public bathrooms at City Hall, libraries, the mall or the Portland Loo.

But to get a full shower, 46 percent of those surveyed reported using Transition Projects Inc. (also commonly known as TPI) Day Center at Bud Clark Commons, 650 N.W. Irving St. TPI is a nonprofit that receives funding from the city and county to operate and is the largest provider of shelter for homeless people in the county. It's the only place for drop-in use for showering. JOIN, a nonprofit that connects people to housing, has a day center with showers as well, but it is closed for mold remediation and repairs.

Heine mentioned using Transition Projects Inc.

"If you do have to take a shower, it takes a whole day to take a shower, and you have to mess with TPI and all that crap," Heine, a 48-year-old alcoholic, says. He blames his love of booze for his homelessness, often going on drunken binges when he will also seek out cocaine, he says.

The TPI Day Center is equipped with five showers and three public restrooms. Each shower room also contains restroom facilities, and showers are timed at 20 minutes each. The showers operate from open to close, which is Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

During the week, the center offers 160 shower slots and 100 on the weekend. Day Center Manager Christopher Sage says the facility operates on a first-come, first-serve basis, and slots are always full.

"I do agree that the need outnumbers the services available," Sage says.

To access the showers at TPI, participants must have a Transition Projects ID, which is created through the city's Homeless Management Information System and ServicePoint System.

"These IDs possess a barcode, which we scan to log the service provided. The ID-creating process should take no more than 10 minutes," Sage says. "To signal the end of the shower time, our shower rooms have a red light which turns on as a warning. After this, we compassionately coax a conclusion."

Terrance Kjellesvig, a 44 year old who was sleeping in a tent in Peninsula Park during January, was frustrated at shower times.

"I mean it's like … you get into the shower and you're supposed to get 20 minutes, but within like five to 10 minutes, they're flashing a light. [Union Gospel] Mission is pretty much always packed so it's always hard to get in there," Kjellsevig says.

Kjellsevig moved to Portland nine months ago from San Bernardino, California, where his mother couldn't handle the heat. He says he thought rent was affordable upon arrival to Portland, but then wasn't able to make it work.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Terrance Kjellesvig, 44, was sleeping in a tent in Peninsula Park in January. Like Heine, he says showering in Portland is difficult.

Solutions and obstacles

Observations from advocates suggest that lack of adequate access to hygiene facilities could actually keep people on the street if they're not able to get or hold a job due to hygiene issues. The last time Portland counted its unsheltered population in 2015, 1,800 slept on the streets. Another count was completed last month and results will be released in the spring.

Hawash worked previously with Sisters of the Road, a nonprofit cafe in Old Town that serves many homeless people. The organization has advocated for the city to open a central hygiene center, pointing to Seattle's Urban Rest Stop, a program of the Low Income Housing Institute, as a model.

Urban Rest Stop's manager, Ronni Gilboa, says that "53 percent of the people who use us are working" or getting ready for work.

"From an economic point of view, how do you expect someone to get, maintain and hold a job if they can't even make it past the front door?," Gilboa says. "Appearance is everything … how can they have any self-confidence in being able to handle an interview?"

Urban Rest Stop was established in 2000 to serve the hygiene needs of the Seattle's homeless population. In 2016, Seattle counted 4,505 unsheltered homeless people. Urban Rest Stop now has three locations.

Their main, downtown facility sees about 500 people a day who need shower or laundry services, but they can only serve half because of lack of capacity, according to Gilboa. They offer 15-minute showers.

"The analogy I draw is, how does it feel after you've been out camping for a week, and you come home and you take a shower? How do you feel? What if you didn't even have access to that shower?" says Gilboa, who has managed the rest stop since its opening 17 years ago on March 29. The facility also offers other on-site connections to social services.

She recalled how difficult it was for the Urban Rest Stop to be established at all. It took more than a decade of battles between people opposed to the facility's central location, and settling a lawsuit by the city's Downtown Seattle Association, which, nearly two decades later, is now a supporter of Urban Rest Stop.

"Nobody wanted the rest stop to be located where it was placed, because … nobody wants to see poor people," says Gilboa.

Hawash recalled difficulty faced in establishing Bud Clark Commons.

"It was years of arguing and debate about where to put that building … what does that look like again?" she says.

A proposal shelved

Sisters of the Road visited Urban Rest Stop for a look, and shared a proposal using PSU's findings to A Home For Everyone, the initiative between the city of Portland, Multnomah County, city of Gresham and Home Forward to end homelessness. It was shelved, for now.

"It doesn't mean it can't come back," says Denis Theriault, spokesman for the initiative and the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services. "A Home for Everyone has a difficult role. We have more need than we have the ability to meet that need, so we have to make careful choices of what our money gets spent on."

Gilboa says the downtown Urban Rest Stop location receives about $750,000 from the city of Seattle annually and has to raise another $200,000 in grants and donations to function.

Theriault added, "We'd love to see businesses and nonprofits step up. This could be a really good opportunity for community partnership." He noted that the new Multnomah County health department headquarters building being constructed next to Bud Clark Commons will have public restrooms for use.

It's hard to say if the city or county will consider helping fund a central hygiene facility anytime soon, but the Joint Office/A Home For Everyone mission of adding and expanding current shelter says Theriault, could help address the issue.

"I wouldn't say this is a plan, but if you think about adding shelters, we're already creating and building those out and improving those spaces … you could add more bathrooms and begin to sort of address that," he says. "We don't have a proposal to do that, but it's an idea."

It's an idea that folks like Heine hope for sooner rather than later.

"I mean, there's three showers [there are five at the TPI Day Center], really for the whole downtown area. I mean I think Portland could do a little bit more to get people up on their feet," Heine says.

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See the Portland State University homeless hygiene study


Ronni Gilboa and Lisa Hawash are planning a discussion: "Hygiene Project: Panel Discussion and Call To Action" from 1-3 p.m. Saturday, April 1 at the Q Center, 4115 N. Mississippi Ave.

The article was updated to reflect that A Home For Everyone and Joint Office are also expanding shelter for homeless people, not just adding, which has helped to ease the problem.

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