Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
A keen sense of smell is not to the advantage of individuals in Calhoun County who are unhoused or housing insecure and lack access to shower facilities, says Kathy Antaya, Volunteer Coordinator for the SHARE Center
in downtown Battle Creek.
Recently, Antaya had a conversation with a SHARE Center client that drove home the reality he might not get an interview for a job he was applying for at a local fast-food restaurant because of the way he smelled.
“One of the folks that I consider one of my friends at the SHARE Center told me he had a job interview coming up. He was really excited about the opportunity because he was able to get some good clothes from the Charitable Union
to wear for the interview,” she says.
But, then he turned his head away and when he turned back towards Antaya, he was crying.
“I don’t know how to arrange it to have my body and clothes cleaned on the same day. I want to go to this interview with my best foot forward and I’m not always sure that I’ll be able to get a shower when I need one,” he told her.
“That just broke my heart because this guy has overcome some serious hurdles and now he’s got this opportunity,” she says. “It’s one thing if an employer sees you as a good person with a good work ethic. But if they can’t count on you to come to work clean, that employer’s kind of stuck and so are you. All of a sudden reality hit, ‘I might not get that interview because I’m going to stink.’”
In line with its mission to help people overcome crises by meeting basic needs, removing barriers, and stabilizing income and housing, the organization is planning to add shower facilities to the services it already provides to the area’s most marginalized residents, says Robert Elchert, Executive Director of the SHARE Center.
However, they will need an estimated $50,000 to help cover the cost to install two shower areas that are to be located in space behind the front desk. The remainder of the total cost will come through ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars that the SHARE Center received from the City of Battle Creek.
“We have spent just over $112,000 and have about $252,000 left in ARPA funds,” Elchert says. “We have purchased new drinking fountains, picnic tables, eight new toilets, four new sinks, two drinking fountains with bottle fillers, a dishwasher, stove/oven, and a washer and dryer. We also used the money to pay for an interior paint job, architectural drawings, two doors and construction of two new offices for peer support and case management, and a few odds and ends.”
The remainder, he says, will be used for exterior paint, parking lot repaving, landscaping, walk-in cooler/freezer, a pavilion, bathroom remodeling, new flooring throughout, and the construction of a separate building to be used by our support groups to provide greater privacy.
“With inflation the way it is, it is anybody's guess as to how much all of this will cost by the time we are ready to do each part,” Elchert says. “Based on quotes I have received so far, I am guessing we will need another $50,000 to build a locker room for people to store their belongings and two showers.”
On average the SHARE Center
has between 70 and 80 individuals who come in at various times during the day to access services, participate in programs, interact with others, or receive a free breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Based on feedback he’s received from clients, Elchert says having access to a shower is important to them.
“When I would do client meetings and people would come into my office, they would tell me that it would be really nice to have showers here. From the time we open at 8 a.m., this is their home. Many of them have homes but they don’t have consistent opportunities to take a shower. Not having access to a shower is a huge barrier if you’re trying to find work. It means everything to some people that that could be the difference between getting a job and not getting a job.”
However, there also are physical and mental health components to having the ability to a necessity that many people take for granted, Elchert says.
“Self-esteem is huge,” he says. “If you’re walking around and you haven’t been able to clean yourself up, it impacts how you feel. We have folks here who are incontinent and I can only imagine what not having a way to clean themselves up might do to their self-esteem. You’re a lot less confident when you smell.”
Antaya says for the clients she’s spoken with it isn’t just a matter of “Do I smell good for other people?” It’s a matter of their confidence and self-respect. She says those without access to a shower often end up throwing away underwear and other clothing because they can’t get a shower or their clothes cleaned regularly.
The SHARE Center provides washers and dryers for clients to clean their clothes. Elchert says more than 3,000 loads of laundry are done annually.
“It doesn’t feel good if you have to wear those same clothes for the rest of the week,” Antaya says. “Those of us with places to live don’t even think about what it’s like to wake up first thing in the morning and you’ve got to go and you’re sleeping in a tent in a little scrap of woods. Imagine having to clean up yourself and there’s no shower or indoor toilet. This hit home this whole week while I was suffering from COVID and laying in my clean bed for as long as I wanted.”
Conversations about the installation of the showers began before COVID between Elchert and Jaimie Fales, Executive Director of First Congregational Church. One shower at the church is available to individuals in the community with few other options. FCC congregants also have been donating soap, shampoo, towels, and other personal hygiene items for individuals who shower there.
In 2021, church officials say they provided 804 showers. That shower ministry has been offered for several years, but it wasn’t until last year that the use of the showers really picked up, Fales says, adding that the need was broader than she realized.
Up to this point, Fales says the shower was “only used here or there by someone who needed to use a mobility device and needed an accessible shower. It was also used by folks stranded here who needed to shower and change clothes and needed a bus ticket. Once other people found out that the shower was available, that’s when the use increased.”
Fales says some folks are “unhoused or housing insecure and may be staying with a friend or have housing and their water’s been shut off or their plumbing’s broken and they can’t afford to fix it. We want to make sure this need is being fulfilled one way or another. Not everybody who’s used our shower ministry is necessarily unhoused.”
The church is phasing out its shower ministry because space is being leased there by various nonprofits and artists
and Fales says eventually the space connected to the shower room is going to be exclusively for use by a tenant. They say they will try to keep it operational until the showers are available at the SHARE Center.
Elchert says he’s trying to be realistic about a possible date for the installation of the two showers.
“Things have been moving pretty quickly. I’d like to say within one year,” he says. “We would like to make the showers available to anyone who needs them, especially those who don’t have access to a shower.”
In addition to monetary donations to help with installation costs, Elchert says they need donations of soap, shampoo, towels, and washcloths.
In-kind donations can be dropped off at the SHARE Center, 120 Grove St., Battle Creek, and financial donations could be a check or a donation online through the organization’s website.