This spring, precautions against COVID-19 closed some of the few showers open to people who are homeless and living outdoors, including one in the basement of the Duffy Health Center in Hyannis.
Now, with a little ingenuity and some help from the state, showers are back — in a special trailer that meets COVID-19 protocol.
“We just quickly realized that there was a huge need,” said Melissa Payne, who works in recovery support at the health center.
She was standing in the parking lot, outside the silver metal trailer. It has two exterior doors, and behind each is a bathroom with a shower.
Anyone who needs a shower is welcome, she said.
“So people can just walk up,” she said. “We set them up with what they need. We ask them if they have any health concerns.”
Back at the start of the pandemic, the health center staff told their state senator, Julian Cyr, that if they had to close their basement shower, it would be great to have an outdoor shower station. Within a few days, the trailer arrived from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.
Now, visitors can shower three days a week instead of the previous one.
Payne said each person gets toiletries, a towel from the health center’s linen service, and 20 cleansing, comforting minutes.
“We also have Narcan available for people, [and] snacks, food,” she said. “We've been able to really connect with people we couldn't touch before in terms of housing, treatment, all that stuff.”
A professional cleaner was standing by in full virus protection gear to clean the showers between each use.
Payne said she’s proud of how the shower program has grown into a hub of support. The case managers and recovery staff have gotten several of their regulars into drug treatment, a sober house, a shelter, or housing.
“We were like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this has grown into this really awesome thing,’” she said.
Near the shower station, I met Leita Burbank and Joseph Digeloromo, who heard about the showers shortly before they got evicted from their Yarmouth apartment in July. Within a week of losing the apartment, they started coming to the shower station.
“We came over not knowing what to expect, really,” Digeloromo said.
“Yeah, and we had had some issues with addiction as well,” said Burbank.
The couple hadn’t lived in the apartment long, and before that, they bounced around to different homes and lived outside.
They said the people they met through the shower station helped guide them in their recovery and so much more — big things, like getting Burbank into detox, and little things, like letting them charge their phones. And of course, they could see a doctor right on site.
Burbank, who is from Hyannis, needed her Social Security card and birth certificate. They helped with that, too.
“Leah’s helping us get housing that we didn't think was possible,” she said.
“And they ask for nothing in return,” her boyfriend said.
Burbank said all the staff ask of them is that they keep taking the right steps to get where they need to go.
“It helped show us that there are people out there that really care,” Digeloromo said.
They don’t have to shower in the trailer anymore, because they got beds at St. Joseph House shelter.
Through the shelter, Digeloromo, who grew up in Dennis and Yarmouth, said he got some work as a handyman.
“Ever since we started coming here, our life has improved on almost a daily basis,” he said.
Although this couple is fairly young, Duffy case manager Cathleen Finn said many who use the showers are in their late 40s or early 50s and have been homeless a long time.
“So we have people that have been out in the woods for many, many years,” she said. “They're all getting older.”
Finn can see the difference in the way they carry themselves as soon as they step out of the trailer.
“And they come out feeling so much more human,” she said. “I've had people actually have tears in their eyes, saying, ‘I have not had a shower in so long, and it feels so good.’”
The staff say that in a world more focused than ever on measuring success, sometimes giving someone the chance to see a doctor with dignity, or to take a warm shower, really is enough.