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In this 10-part local series, KSMU News Director Jennifer Moore shared the stories of the unsheltered homeless residents of Springfield, Missouri as their lives were upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Drawing from dozens of interviews, "Unsheltered" looked at shelter capacity, hygiene, food, mental health, coronavirus prevention, unique risks to women and transgender residents, employment disruptions, policy on homeless camps, local CARES Act expenditures and how other communities were using coronavirus relief funds to shelter their homeless.

Hundreds Of Springfield’s Homeless Sign Up To Use One Shower Stall

Jennifer Moore

The first way the pandemic changed things for 48-year-old William Still was that he no longer had access to a toilet or shower.

"McDonald's, Hardee's, Wendy's and anywhere that had a restroom you could use [before the pandemic]. And now, you're down to Fast and Friendly, if you make a purchase," he said, referring to a nearby gas station. 

He’s a US Army veteran, originally from Oklahoma City, and he’s been homeless for a year and a half, he said.

When libraries and restaurants in Springfield closed their doors or restricted occupancy, he and other homeless residents were suddenly without a place to wash or relieve themselves.

On this day, he’s chatting with friends at the Veterans Coming Home Center, a daytime drop-in and resource center for the homeless in central Springfield. 

There’s one free shower here to be shared by an estimated hundreds of homeless people in Springfield who need to use it. And homeless advocates say it’s the only free shower for unsheltered adults in the city. Rare Breed, the drop-in center for homeless youth, has two showers, and a coordinator said those have remained open for young people throughout the pandemic.

“They sign up six in the morning and six in the afternoon, and you if you are on that list, you get to take a 

Credit Jennifer Moore / KSMU
William Still, right, catches up with a friend as he waits to use the lone shower at Veterans Coming Home Center in central Springfield.

shower," Still said.  He's job-hunting, so he’s desperate to get on that shower list.

Chris Rice oversees operations at Veterans Coming Home Center in Springfield. He says the pandemic is severely impacting hygiene for Springfield’s homeless.

"When toilet paper is nonexistent for people who do have the money to buy toilet paper, it becomes even harder for people who rely on certain places to get that toilet paper, or to get deodorant or toothbrushes, toothpaste," Rice said.

When the stay-at-home orders were first issued, his center handed out donated hygiene kits. But those went quickly.

"So we have a shower and we we do 12 hours a day, and that's men or women. There really weren't many places to begin with that were that were doing showers. And so, yeah, that is a huge need," Rice said.

Christie Love, a pastor and advocate for the homeless, says access to showers for the unsheltered has long been a problem in Springfield. And that has a direct impact on employment and health. 

"An individual I can think of specifically did not have access to shower facilities regularly and was engaging with the public. And, you know, we spoke with their boss and they were very concerned that that was going to be a sustainable job for them if we couldn't correct that issue," Love said.

She also said her church's outreach program has seen an increase of secondary infections, like wounds or insect bites that became infected, which she attributes to the lack of hygeine.

Shower services close to prevent the spread of coronavirus

"We used to [provide free showers].  And this is a consequence, definitely, of the pandemic--that has been a terrible consequence," said Jason Hynson, the executive director of Victory Mission, which serves the homeless through both short-term and long-term sheltering programs.

"We used to allow people to come in and shower.  And I mean, we would have 15 to 20 a day," Hynson said.

But the spread of a deadly virus forced Victory Mission and other shelters to make some tough choices.  Hynson said his organization decided to focus on the people who were staying longer term.

"You know, if 50 men get kind of an outbreak down there, it's going to spread into the other rooms. We couldn't take that risk," Hynson said.

Victory Mission has also pushed pause on its free laundry service and women’s homeless drop-in center.

Adam Bodendieck is the director of Homeless Services at the Community Partnership of the Ozarks.

"What does it look like when you're being told one of the best things you can do is wash your hands thoroughly and frequently and you don't necessarily have access to be able to do that as much as you should?"

He said CPO’s One Door facility in north Springfield is working to get some showers and laundry up and running soon.

Katie Kring, an advocate for the homeless and founder of the Springfield Street Choir, says a major solution can’t come soon enough.

"It's very much the case that for people to just do something as basic as he used to use a restroom is a problem. On the flip side, if people just sort of answer the call of nature where they are, then that's public urination and then we see people getting ticketed," Kring said.

Poor hygeine leads to a cycle that’s harmful and disastrous, she said.

"So that absolutely puts people at a disadvantage for gaining employment. I mean, gaining employment as a homeless person is spectacularly hard," Kring said.

Angel Walker, who grew up in Springfield, can testify to that. She’s a grandmother and a former CNA, or Certified Nursing Assistant, who's recovering from a methamphetamine addiction. 

She says she attends her counseling sessions and recovery classes religiously. She spends a lot of her day walking to bus stops and spent a recent night sleeping on a park tennis court. She says she knows she needs a shower and that makes her feel embarrassed and ashamed.

"I try really hard, even though I'm living on the streets and may not shower maybe like, you know, smell really bad B.O. or something. But I still go to my class and I tell them, 'This is what I'm doing.'  And I'm fighting hard to stay clean and doing what I have to do," Walker said.

Walker says even though her skin and hair may be dirty, she’s determined to keep her bloodstream clean.

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