4. Show­ers and toi­lets for the home­less

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Alice Leahy

It’s not al­ways easy to see the con­nec­tion be­tween health and a hot shower. Peo­ple come down to the Alice Leahy Trust in the base­ment of the Iveagh Hos­tel in Dublin city cen­tre to get cleaned up for im­por­tant events. Some­times these are forks in the road that might take them one way or an­other: court dates, an in­ter­view with a so­cial worker, a hous­ing of­fi­cer.

We are not a pub­lic shower provider. Our wash­ing fa­cil­i­ties are part of a holis­tic health ser­vice for peo­ple who use the Trust. They have been part of what we do for over 40 years since the day we man­han­dled a huge cast iron bath into our old premises on Lord Ed­ward Street.

Last month we pro­vided 276 show­ers and clean-ups (a wash and shave at a basin). On av­er­age, each day in Septem­ber, 14 peo­ple walked back up the steps cleaner, warmer and more ready for what­ever they were fac­ing.

We of­ten get phonecalls from pub­lic health nurses and hous­ing ac­tivists won­der­ing if peo­ple they work with can come and use our shower. We have to tell them we are not a pub­lic shower fa­cil­ity. Ev­ery day we see the need for Dublin to pro­vide mu­nic­i­pal show­ers, not just for peo­ple liv­ing on the streets.

Pub­lic show­ers and toi­lets al­low peo­ple to ex­ist on their own terms. Their ab­sence means Dublin treats its cit­i­zens as con­sumers of ever more ex­pen­sive things. “Yes, you can wash your hands or splash cool wa­ter on your face,” the city says. “But first there’s that cof­fee or burger you have to buy.”

A decade ago we com­mis­sioned ar­chi­tect Niall Ó hÉalaithe of Open Of­fice Ar­chi­tects to come up with ideas for pub­lic show­ers. His clever de­signs put show­ers into glow­ing boxes on un­used cor­ners, in­stalled one with a grass roof into a spare hol­low of ground be­side Dr Steevens’s Hos­pi­tal. He de­signed an­other for the grounds of Saint Pa­trick’s Cathe­dral “in the tra­di­tion of Jonathan Swift’s con­cern for the poor peo­ple of Dublin”. The small unit would slot into a re­cess in the red brick bound­ary walls, dis­turb­ing nei­ther graves nor trees. There were de­signs for bus shel­ter show­ers which could be coin-op­er­ated, self-clean­ing and fully au­to­mated.

Other de­signs had re­cep­tion rooms where peo­ple could leave their be­long­ings. Stand­alone pre-cast pyra­mids were fit­ted with so­lar pan­els to help heat the wa­ter.

The de­signs were well-re­ceived. The idea went nowhere. We got a bar­rage of calls, many of them from city coun­cil­lors, telling us all the rea­sons show­ers couldn’t be pro­vided.

In a mod­ern cap­i­tal city no one should have to go to a char­ity to have a wash. It should be a stan­dard mu­nic­i­pal ser­vice ac­ces­si­ble to all, like buy­ing a bus ticket, paid for by peo­ple who can af­ford it and sub­sidised for peo­ple who can’t.

A one-bed­room apart­ment on the Rue des Deux-Ponts on L’Île Saint-Louis in the cen­tre of Paris is on the mar­ket for more than ¤600,000. Like most of the city the street feels ex­pen­sive. But walk through a small en­trance into a court­yard, and there is a hand­some bath­house where you can have a 20-minute shower for free.

There are 17 Bains-Douches Mu­nic­i­paux all over Paris. They are used by home­less peo­ple, fam­i­lies in sub­stan­dard hous­ing, stu­dents, back­pack­ers, peo­ple with­out the re­sources for gym mem­ber­ship in the fourth ar­rondisse­ment and other swankier parts of one of the world’s most ex­pen­sive cities.

They are staffed by friendly mu­nic­i­pal work­ers in blue, white and orange over­alls. There is a place to leave your be­long­ings while you take a hot shower, pri­vacy to dress, dry your hair and go back out onto the street anew. They feel like a refuge, safe, clean and kind, a hum­ble but es­sen­tial part of the in­fra­struc­ture of a cap­i­tal city.

In con­ver­sa­tion with Cather­ine Cleary. Alice Leahy’s me­moir The Stars are Our Only Warmth is in book­shops now, pub­lished by O’Brien Press for ¤19.99. All roy­al­ties go to The Alice Leahy Trust on Dublin’s Bride Road

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