Social Justice

Sarah Lamptey knows the value of a hot shower for people on the margins

Giving rough sleepers access to a free place to shower can be life-changing, says ShowerBox founder Sarah Lamptey. In The Big Issue, she reflects on providing vital support during the Covid-19 crisis

In late 2018, shelter volunteer and radio presenter Sarah Lamptey was dismayed by how hard it was for homeless people to access hygiene facilities. She founded ShowerBox, London’s first free mobile showers, based in a specially fitted van that travels between homelessness charities and foodbanks. It’s something that makes a huge different to the mental wellbeing of vulnerable people, she says – and it’s work that has proven life-saving during the pandemic.

Since Christmas 2018, there’s been a blue box, carrying two showers and two changing rooms, on the streets of London. This simple box has cared for hundreds of people in need, providing clean, warm water and a space for self-care.

The development of the ShowerBox project has been gradual, as this was new territory – personally and also for a homeless service in London. It started by servicing homeless shelters, which had their own structures and volunteers. Then, myself and volunteer friends ran the shower trailer alongside the Simon Community’s Street Cafe at St Giles-in-the-Fields Church. The mobile nature of the showers combined with the project’s lack of formal structure enabled the project to adapt to each scenario, culminating in this ubiquitous Covid one. As a result, ShowerBox has naturally become its own independent service at St Giles-in-the-Fields.

However, with ShowerBox’s unofficial status as a charitable project came the challenge of funding. Thus far, aside from a £5,000 grant from the Somers Town Community Association, I’ve raised funds for ShowerBox on JustGiving alone (incredibly touchingly, the website awarded the project ‘Changemaker of the Year’ at its award ceremony last year). In order to be eligible for various funding avenues, I recently submitted an application for ShowerBox to become a Community Interest Company. There are only so many times I can enlist friends and family to donate!

The chaos of Covid ladled extra challenges on to the project. Recruiting drivers was tricky prior to the pandemic, let alone when lockdown hit. So I, a relatively new driver, took to the roads and started towing! It’s incredible (and sometimes terrifying) what sheer determination will make one do! Financially, we were hit too; this has not been a great year to rely on public donations. Also, the congestion charge was extended to the weekend, adding £60 on top of £50 Ultra Low Emission Zone payments each month. Another hurdle took the form of finding a new base for the trailer and Jeep. A church had let us use its car park, but needed the spaces back to rent them out, having lost money with the church closed. Also, many day centres have reopened with restricted services, so we are now showering between 30 and 35 people each week and have had to extend our hours. Lastly, there was the major obstacle of closed toilets. Again, I was reminded of the degrading options available when there is a lack of facilities.

A final challenge came in the form of the following response from a councillor. He said he has “reservations about the shower concept because [their] strategy is always to divert rough sleepers away from the harmful scenarios which prevail in central London”. I replied, inviting him to the service, in the hope that he might be less concerned with strategies and more concerned with the experiences of those in front of him. As an example, one guest arrived during lockdown who hadn’t showered since the end of last year. The councillor is yet to reply.

Alongside the obstacles, there have been brilliant boosts. UPark by Tower Bridge has recently let us park there. Greggs have started to donate their unsold food and Ecover are giving us a huge pallet of cleaning products. A great group of volunteers have stepped forward to help each week. We’ve received hundreds of washbag donations from community group Serving Our Superheroes, Caroline of Tricky Period supports the project each week and then there’s the endlessly kind Malcolm, who cleans our towels each week for free. Claire of Ginger Princess gives haircuts once a month and the ensuing beams point to why enabling self-care and hygiene is crucial. 

Each week, the shower doors open and there are smiles and remarks of “feeling human again”. ShowerBox’s strategy, then, is to help as many people as possible feel like that. 

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