Colonial powers and community showers

Since the first COVID-19 restrictions were implemented in ‘victoria’ in March 2020, one survival service (of many) that has been restricted for those forced to shelter outside is basic hygiene access in the form of showers. While there have been several organizations that have been offering limited access to showers throughout the pandemic, overall these services have been reduced, restricted, and largely inaccessible to those sheltering in parks away from the downtown core. With ongoing changes to bylaws and enforcement, an order from the provincial government restricting sheltering in two locations, and increasing hostility from housed people, campers have been continually and increasingly displaced from the core of the city where most shower services are located. 

On November 21, 2020, in massive numbers, bylaw enforcement officers and VicPD tore down community-built crowdfunded showers and a community care tent at MEEGAN. Shortly after this heavy-handed display of colonial power, the City announced a one-time Emergency Social Services Provision Grant to respond to immediate hygiene and survival needs until March 31, 2021 when the City is insisting everyone living outside will be housed (despite no apparent plan to achieve that). While more funding for resources and infrastructure is useful, the City is also the cause of many of the problems and this grant has political motivations and implications. 

From the start the City has prioritized money for increased bylaw enforcement and policing, including a recent allocation of nearly $600,000 additional funding to hire five more Bylaw officers (which is intended to be permanent, at $491,000/year) and to pay police more overtime for increased policing near larger encampments. The City has repeatedly changed rules about sheltering, forcing people to move multiple times, and arbitrarily deciding on permissible locations with no thought to liveability of those locations — as was horribly witnessed a week ago when heavy rains flooded many people’s tents, destroying their belongings — and even spent money on a legal injunction to displace campers from one location. And the City has also repeatedly refused to communicate and work constructively with groups providing support and services on the ground.

Despite many misgivings about all of this, given the huge need for more shower access Nic, a community volunteer involved in shower advocacy, spent many hours sleuthing shower options and bringing groups together to support a collaborative, peer-centred mobile shower project. But the way the City set up the grant meant this was doomed to fail. 

We are sharing Nic’s work for two reasons. As part of broader understanding about how colonial systems work, we want to illustrate how the one-time Emergency Social Services Provision Grant was inaccessible, problematic, and perpetuates colonial control, and how the City continues to interfere with unhoused people’s autonomy to decide what they need and who they trust and want to work with. We also wanted to share info on mobile shower logistics in case it helps people in other regions who are considering mobile showers to have a realistic sense of what is involved.

Funding Amount

The City’s grant was limited to $100,000 one-time funding. To explore what could be done with that funding, as a starting point Nic consulted with LavaMaeX, a highly reputable and experienced mobile shower and hygiene provider who offers support and consultation to organizations looking to develop mobile shower programs across the world. For some items he also did additional research on costs. 

Although the mayor posted on her blog a picture of a three-stall mobile shower trailer from another region as an example of what the grant was supposedly making possible, the reality is that even a smaller mobile shower project can’t properly be done for $100,000. That amount is not enough to buy a shower trailer and cover the costs of freight and duty for the import of the trailer, a vehicle to tow the trailer, wages, vehicle insurance, liability insurance, ICBC coverage, materials (propane to heat the water, gas for truck and generator, towels, sanitizing products, etc.), laundry services, unit parking costs, and vehicle/trailer maintenance. Below we break down the expenses. All estimates are in ‘canadian’ dollars.

Shower trailer: We believe it is unethical to consider infrastructure that is inaccessible to people with mobility disabilities. However, for a more solid understanding of costs Nic looked at a full range of options, consulting both with LavaMaeX for a general sense of cost range and five commercial shower trailer suppliers for more specific estimates. A 3-stall trailer with stairs (which would have required ramping and other accessibility customization) or a 2-stall wheelchair-accessible trailer would have cost over $60,000, and a 2-stall non-accessible trailer (which would have required ramping and other accessibility customization) would cost over $40,000. Obviously, having only two stalls would significantly reduce the number of people who could use the shower on a daily basis. LavaMaeX estimated that a 3-stall trailer could provide 35 showers per day, already not enough for the 200+ people at all 11 different sites across the city to shower even once weekly. 

Vehicle with towing capacity: LavaMaeX estimated over $50,000 to purchase a new truck with sufficient towing capacity. It’s a huge outlay especially for just a four-month project, but there aren’t other good options. Shopping on the used market means the vehicle risks being unreliable with high maintenance costs, leasing a vehicle is generally not possible or cost-effective if the lease is less than a two-year contract, most car rental companies will void their insurance if the vehicle is found towing a trailer, and U-Haul vehicles that are capable of towing a trailer weighing 9,000 lbs are not rentable by the month. 

Wages: To run a three-stall mobile shower service operating 4 days a week with one day for deep cleaning and maintenance, LavaMaeX estimated a budget of over $28,000 per month for wages alone. This far exceeded the City budget so Nic tried to take it down to a bare bones level of what he felt was possible in local conditions and given the size of the City grant. In the peer-oriented staffing model Nic came up with, the labour costs alone to operate a mobile two-stall shower at a bare minimum of 4 days a week, with two positions (split between multiple people to support peer payments) at 8 hours a day plus 3 hours weekly for trailer maintenance, at $25/hour, would cost $7,875 per month in wages. This doesn’t include the extensive amount of time that would have to go into weekly coordination, or the coordination with the City around sites, safety protocols, and their required reporting (LavaMaeX estimated coordination as one full-time position). A two-position staffing model, even just for February and March and excluding prep training on operating the trailer, overdose response, etc., would total over $15,000. 

Other costs: To run a three-stall mobile shower service operating 4 days a week, LavaMaeX estimated a core budget of $1,356 per month for cleaning products, laundering towels, propane, and water; they couldn’t provide any estimate for ICBC insurance, liability insurance, maintenance of the trailer and towing vehicle, gas, or parking as these are highly geographically specific. Nic didn’t do any in-depth investigation of these costs as it was clear by this point that there was no way to make this work within the terms of the City’s grant.

The bottom line: While $100,000 seems at first glance like a significant sum of money that should be more than enough to run a mobile program for four months, the reality is that acquiring mobile shower infrastructure is very expensive. The City either did no diligence around actual costs of purchasing or operating a mobile shower unit, or deliberately set up a funding competition that was hyped as being open to grassroots teams and organizations already on the ground, but in reality was viable only for large organizations able to augment the City’s funding with other funding sources. 

Realistically, it’s the big poverty industry agencies that corner a large portion of funding streams because of their official organizational status (many funding streams are only open to registered charities) and existing infrastructure (positions and wages that can be shifted to new projects, existing vehicles, ongoing funding from donations, work space, secure parking, liability insurance, administrative and fundraising infrastructure, etc). And indeed, in the end the only organization that submitted a mobile shower proposal was the Salvation Army, a mega-agency that, globally, has a long history of anti-queer and anti-trans discrimination and as a proselytizing Christian organization is not felt to be safe by many people who have experienced harm by Christian churches and missionaries. This is not an organization that prioritizes accountability to people who are unhoused; the local branch came under scrutiny in 2015 for having substandard living conditions in its shelter, and in 2020 was in conflict with outreach groups and people living outside about the way it handled its publicly-funded food distribution to people living in parks (which was abruptly discontinued by the Salvation Army after a few months of changing locations and times with minimal notice, choosing to leave their donated specialized food truck sitting idle rather than offering it to the outreach groups that were left scrambling to put together food distribution systems). 

Photo of a shower trailer included in the Salvation Army’s funded proposal. The Salvation Army committed to providing $55,000 top-up funding as part of its proposal, as the City’s funding was not enough.

Grassroots groups and mutual aid organizing have the ability and willingness to collaborate with people sheltering outside in the design and implementation of infrastructure and programs, and are often centred around economic justice principles that mean recognizing the expertise and skill of people who are unhoused, prioritizing money for peer positions, and paying peers fair wages. But grassroots groups and mutual aid networks don’t have the same kind of financial leverage as poverty industry agencies. Even if no matching funding is required as a prerequisite for applying (as is often the case), functionally requiring matching funding means that large organizations who don’t work collaboratively with those sheltering outside are likely to be the only ones who can run a project.

Timelines

Beyond the financial restrictions involved, the timeline restrictions involved in a project of this nature were also substantial. 

Hurry up and wait: People living outside and the groups providing on-the-ground support have been calling for mobile showers since the COVID public health emergency reduced options in March. When the City finally responded eight months later, the amount of time between the grant announcement and deadline was 10 days. While several city councillors successfully got the deadline extended by one week at the last minute, it still proved, for most people and organizations on the ground who were already stretched thin and functioning at over-capacity, too quick and therefore unworkable to figure out a solid plan for something as complex as creating a collaborative, peer-based mobile shower program from scratch. LavaMaeX has suggested that most organizations take several months to do what the City required to happen in 10 days.

While the City expects organizations already working flat-out to hustle to meet the City’s timeframe, that’s not an expectation they hold for their own staff. Two of the three successful applicants funded through this program have not been able to begin their project one month later due to city restrictions and bureaucracy, making one question how much the City actually deems this an “Emergency”.

Unrealistic implementation timeframe & lost time due to City inaction: In its grant program description the City said grants would support programs running from December 1, 2020 until March 31, 2021. But in the process of calling mobile shower programs in ‘canada’ and all of the shower trailer production and sales companies Nic could find online, it quickly became evident that the earliest a shower trailer could make it onto ‘vancouver island’ would be mid-February 2021. This is largely because of the high demand of mobile shower trailers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, because other municipalities and organizations across the continent had been months ahead of ‘victoria’ in their decisions to pursue mobile shower trailers. Again, the City either did no diligence in creating its granting program or didn’t care that their timeline was unrealistic. Receiving a mobile shower trailer in February 2021 means 2+ months dead time until people are able to access basic hygiene services, with no interim solutions (and already-torn-down mutual aid shower stalls). There was a proposal for fixed-site showers — already constructed — that the City could also have opted to support, that could have been installed much more quickly as an interim measure.

The two community-built shower stalls that the City removed from MEEGAN after people having hot showers for four days. These were supported through volunteer labor and crowdfunding, and cost $5,883 to build, transport, and install. Photo by Emily Fagan from Tyee article.

Additionally, the grant only funds projects until the end of March 2021, which meant that for any team exploring the feasibility of a project there was only a vague guarantee of showers for, at most, 1.5 months unless organizations could come up with additional funding beyond that time. Some groups didn’t apply out of a feeling that $100,000 for 6 weeks of showers is not the best use of emergency funds. 

While a mobile shower unit is something that will be needed ongoing as long as there are people living outside (even if fixed-site shower services return to pre-COVID service structures), many individuals and organizations are unable to take a project on with such uncertain funding for ongoing operation. The infrastructure is only a good investment if it comes with realistic operating timeframes and full accountability to people living outside in how it is operated.

Scoping

The City pitched this project as taking care of people’s shower needs. But when you don’t ask people living in parks how they need things to be set up, it’s impossible to accurately scope an issue. Throwing out a random budget number with no sense of how well it meets needs is not a responsible approach.

As mentioned earlier, LavaMaeX estimated that a 3-stall trailer could provide 35 showers per day. The Salvation Army was funded for a 3-stall mobile shower operating five days per week — at that rate the 200+ people at all 11 different sites across the city can’t shower even once per week. If housed people were rationed down to one shower per week, even outside of a respiratory pandemic, there would be outrage. 

Instead of providing an amount insufficient for even one mobile shower unit, the City could have considered offering both a mobile shower unit (which might be the most feasible approach for smaller parks) and also fixed-site showers at the larger sites where there is significant volume of people needing to shower. The community shower-builders did submit an (unsuccessful) application that could have made showers immediately available near the largest park where people are sheltering, with an option for more fixed-site showers at other locations as part of the roll-out. Fixed-site showers definitely don’t meet everyone’s needs but the immediacy of their implementation at least would have meant that people in one site had access to hot showers near where they’re living during the coldest months of the year. And it would also have relieved demand on the mobile unit, making it more feasible for people at other sites to benefit from it. 

While a mobile shower unit is great in its portability, if you happen to be at the wrong site on the wrong day, or have a schedule that doesn’t align with that of the shower trailer operators, then you are still out of luck. Fixed-site showers proximate to where people are sheltering can be peer-operated during hours that are flexible and based on what people living in the park need, without the environmental and financial costs of moving the showers around the city. But colonial systems don’t consider diverse needs and have little creativity around how to meet those needs.

Ethics

Witnessing first hand the ways that people sheltering outside have been treated by bylaw officers and police through the pandemic (and well before), and watching the same forces do everything in their power to restrict access to showers at MEEGAN (including turning off a water hookup and digging it out of the ground, tearing down several shower stalls, and arresting one person), it did not feel right to even consider applying for funding from the City. A City grant released in the midst of City staff aggressively dismantling a mutual-aid shower project and community care tent is insincere and largely performative. Tearing down an already functional mutual-aid shower project to create a City-controlled shower option is a paternalistic, colonial, bureaucratic power move. The City’s PR person claimed to media that the community showers were shut down because grassroots people were unwilling to work with them, but after nine months of the City being obstructive to grassroots groups working on the ground, it becomes apparent that in the City’s eyes, “working with the City” actually means doing what the City tells you to do.

Additionally, while framing this grant as open to everyone, the reality is that the City’s funding processes are completely inaccessible to people living outside who do health and social service provision all the time with little recognition or compensation. One hopeful applicant sheltering in a park only heard about the grant three hours in advance of the deadline, as the City relied heavily on email to organizations and advertising on its website — impossible for people living outside to access when the City has refused to provide electricity so people living in parks can keep mobile devices reliably charged, and drop-ins are largely closed due to COVID. Council’s discussion of applications during a webcast meeting included a decision to remove the name of the individual who was the most heavily involved in the community care tent, and who had already demonstrated an ability to successfully do a community care tent (till the City tore it down), saying that instead the money should go to the church that was the organization listed as the co-sponsor (in compliance with the City’s requirement that an organization with insurance be identified as the co-sponsor for any informal team). The City’s processes speak to the inaccessibility of funding and the ways that involvement of people who are currently unhoused or have recent experience in the street community is largely tokenized. A peer-based project submitted by an unhoused person and a housed ally was submitted but it wasn’t funded.

Seeing the ways that this grant has been administered, the ways the funding has been distributed, and the ways that the implementation of its projects has been delayed and stretched because of bureaucratic process, demonstrates the ways that this grant — while partly well-intentioned and undoubtedly meaning to support good work in community — was also inadequate, insincere, and a public-relations tactic meant to sweep the City’s misdeeds and inaction under the rug.

A month after the so-called “Emergency”…

After a short extension to the grant deadline, the City decided to fund three projects: $6,500 to set up a new community care tent near (but not in) the park at MEEGAN (making it functionally inaccessible to people living in the park who can’t leave their belongings to access the tent), $22,400 to the Umbrella Society for morning “wellness checks” as part of delivering 120 breakfasts to the 200-250 people living outside (the food provider making the breakfast, who also submitted an application, was not funded by the City), and $86,520 to the Salvation Army Addictions and Rehabilitation Centre to provide a mobile 3-stall shower trailer in parks five days per week until the end of March. The total comes to $115,420 but the City is asking the CRD to reimburse the $15,420 overage from its original $100,000 commitment.

A month after the grant deadline, there are still no showers in or near parks, and restricted showers elsewhere. There is still no city-built infrastructure in order to allow the City’s approved version of the community care tent. While the city tears down mutual aid projects and turns off water sources for people sheltering outside, while they drag their feet in forcing support projects through the “proper” colonial bureaucracy, hundreds of people are forced to live outside in heavy rain, winds, cold, and largely flooded fields. They continue to live without heat, without knowing if they’ll be displaced unnecessarily, without access to basic hygiene, without their human rights being respected by the City. And while it will be truly great to have a mobile shower trailer in the city in February and ongoing, it would’ve also been great if the City had worked with people living outside, and had listened and acted on a solution to the shower crisis a year ago, last March, when the struggle for showers initially began.

For further reading

Mobile shower vendors:

Some media coverage of the local shower access saga:

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