London’s first free shower for the homeless is set for Brixton

ShowerBox aims to improve hygiene and morale among London's homeless population

An initiative to provide free and safe showering facilities to homeless people has secured its first location.

ShowerBox, spearheaded by London-based radio presenter and shelter volunteer Sarah Lamptey, was set up to give rough sleepers access to safe places to wash.

The project will debut on the grounds of Brixton Soup Kitchen, designed inside one of five large storage containers recently donated. ShowerBox is currently running off contributions from companies and from the public.

However Mayor of London Sadiq Khan responded to a petition calling for the showers to be installed in the city, which had amassed nearly 2,000 signatures, by reaffirming his commitment to a £8.5 million budget for “a range of different initiatives which complement the services commissioned by local authorities”. That, in this context, does not include ShowerBox.

Sarah Lamptey ShowerBox
Sarah-Lamptey-ShowerBox
Sarah Lamptey has not been left downhearted by Sadiq Khan's response to ShowerBox

Lamptey, who has extensive experience volunteering with homelessness charities like Simon Community, Shelter and Crisis, said the facilities on offer inside day centres are not enough.

“They’re stretched beyond belief and there are homeless individuals who, for different reasons, can’t access day centres. So even if they do have enough showers, there are still many people kept outside of that.”

She said the mental repercussions caused by poor hygiene are damaging, adding to the stigma faced by rough sleepers in public spaces and exacerbating the UK’s homelessness crisis.

“Those of us who have roofs over our heads all know how good it feels to be clean. And that is such a restorative force. Having a shower, even washing just a couple of days of grime off you, can impact you mentally and change how you feel about yourself. And it’s been shown that you make better choices when you feel good about yourself.”

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The volunteer also said that the physical impact of uncleanliness takes a toll on the NHS, arguing that projects like hers would cut preventable diseases and save the country “millions”.

Access to the first ShowerBox location is not to be limited to rough sleepers. “There’s a whole section of homelessness that is, in a way, behind closed doors,” Lamptey said.

“Sleeping in cars, on friends’ sofas, in hostels and everything else. I believe it would be far-reaching, and a small change – but small changes make big differences.”

It is hoped that the showers will also give users a chance to switch off from worries of being looked down on or moved on by police. The aim is for them to be staffed by homeless people who have been referred for work by charities.

Lamptey added that her peers volunteering at London services had witnessed first-hand the impact that preventable diseases caused by poor hygiene could have.

The freelance radio presenter was not discouraged by the response her petition received from the Mayor’s office. “It wasn’t a surprise. I felt I had quite a lot of political jargon thrown back at me. I thought, right, okay, I’ll do it myself,” she said.

“I’ve had conversations with politicians where they say they want to commit to ending homelessness [rather than funding projects like ShowerBox in the short term] – well of course, me too, that’s an almost patronising response.

“That’s the ideal, but at the end of the day we have to break it down and keep it really simple if we want to get there. Asking ourselves what we can do today to affect tomorrow.”

At present, Lamptey has plans to meet with a water supplier and a company which is interested in designing the public showers. She said she has seen massive support from companies and individuals through word-of-mouth and her own outreach efforts.

No date has been set for the Brixton showers to open with funds currently being raised to support the plan via crowdfunding. But the facilities will be designed with sustainability in mind, according to Lamptey, even if that means there is some delay in their opening. But, the organiser added, “the need is there and it’s getting colder”.

Image: Petr Kratochvil