Share House reluctantly draws a line on showers, restrooms

Strained facility means nonresidents can no longer shower or use restrooms outside of meal times

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith



Food with Friends raises money for shower trailer

When Food with Friends heard that Share House would stop offering showers to the homeless, the group brainstormed alternatives.

Jamie Spinelli, who volunteers with the nonprofit and is a case manager for Community Services Northwest, knew that Clackamas Service Center and other homeless outreach groups in Portland use a shower trailer. But, with so many groups already using the trailer, there wasn’t a time that Food with Friends could borrow it and drive it around Clark County.

So, Spinelli connected with its builder, PDX Cart Builder, and learned that there was another shower trailer about two weeks away from completion. The previous buyer had apparently backed out after the builder had already put $15,000 worth of materials into the trailer, which has two private showers and a tankless water heater.

“He would give it to us just for the cost of materials,” Spinelli said.

Cherish DesRochers-Vafeados posted on Food with Friends’ Facebook page that the nonprofit was trying to raise $15,000 to buy the trailer. By the next day, they had gotten enough donations, and the Council for the Homeless pledged to help cover costs to ensure it becomes operational. 

“We didn’t expect for it to happen so quickly,” said DesRochers-Vafeados, who heads Food with Friends and is a Battle Ground city councilor. “I’m still in awe.”

While waiting for the trailer to get finished, Food with Friends is raising money to help people shower at community centers. There’s also a lot of research to be done to ensure the trailer is insured, permitted and otherwise street legal. Food with Friends is also looking for host sites at churches, businesses and other organizations already serving the homeless that would benefit from offering showers. The host site would have to provide the proper hookups for water, electricity and drainage for grey water.

“We want to be able to take it all over the county,” Spinelli said.

Those places could offer as many or as few showers as they want, and perhaps they would also provide the volunteers to run the service. Food with Friends is still figuring out logistics and will be meeting with PDX Cart Builder soon to learn more about the shower trailer.

“This is going to be helpful is so, so many ways,” Spinelli said. “People all over the county are going to be able to shower.”

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— Patty Hastings

After sewage backed up onto the first floor of the men’s homeless shelter in downtown Vancouver, shutting down the evening’s hot meal program, Diane McWithey knew the building had reached a breaking point. Something had to be done.

As of Tuesday, Share House no longer allows people who aren’t residents to shower at the facility or use the restrooms outside of meal times. It was the only local public facility that offered free showers to people who live outside, and there are few other places homeless people can go to use the bathroom.

“This was not an easy decision to make by any stretch of the imagination,” McWithey said. “We all feel horrible about it.”

McWithey, the executive director of Share, the Vancouver nonprofit operating shelters and other services for the homeless, along with Deputy Director Amy Reynolds, recently made the decision to quit taxing the building beyond what it can handle.

The 10,400-square-foot building just wasn’t designed for the large amount of people constantly using it every day. Fifty-nine men live there, and in the winter, another 30 men sleep on the cafeteria floor. It also opens up to the public for meals and had offered showers to people who don’t live there.

Trisha Pogue tried to shower at Share House as often as she could. After showering Thursday morning, she applied her makeup in the restroom next to the cafeteria.

“Just because I’m homeless doesn’t mean I have to smell like I’m homeless,” Pogue said.

The 35-year-old said she has been homeless for about five years and wishes Share could keep offering showers to people living outside.

“Where am I going to shower and use the restroom? There’s no place you can go,” she said.

Plumbing system taxed

Otha Common monitored a sign-in sheet as people arrived Thursday at Share House for lunch, served between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. He estimates that between 100 and 125 people come in for lunch daily. That translates to a lot of people using the restrooms, and that’s problematic for the plumbing system, Common said. Still, he understands why Share House’s director Katie Louis is distressed about having to stop offering that service to people.

“Katie wants to help everybody. She’s got a heart of gold,” Common said.

When Louis recently informed a woman that there was a space for her at a shelter, she got emotional reflecting on the bathroom situation.

“It’s just hard to think that if she’s not going in there, she’s not showering,” Louis said. “It’s not like there are more shelter beds.”

When the sewage problem happened on July 17, Louis already had a plumber on the way for a different maintenance issue. She said the indoor/outdoor carpet that was in the hallway between the bathroom and the cafeteria had to be ripped out and is going to be replaced with a different type of flooring.

The bathrooms, which have tile, were pressure-washed and cleaned with bleach. In the meantime, dinner couldn’t be served, so Louis called upon outreach groups that serve meals to people outside. They fed people who were already gathered, waiting for dinner to start.

Share later posted notifications about the change in the restrooms and showers.

The restrooms used to be open between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily for anyone who needed to use them. And every day there were 10 slots for people to sign up to use the five showers at Share House, but sometimes up to 15 people would take showers depending on emergencies and people’s needs. That included pregnant women and people with incontinence issues and disabilities.

“It’s very difficult to tell somebody standing in front of you asking for a shower, who has soiled themselves, ‘no,’ ” Louis said.

‘More than it can handle’

Share House was built in 1998 after the previous one was destroyed by arson in 1996. The facility at 1115 W. 13th St. opened Jan. 2, 1999, and is the only shelter in Clark County housing single men.

The architect who helped design Share House, Randall Salisbury, warned McWithey before he died in 2013 that the building was not built to accommodate so many people. He said the wear and tear would result in major costs down the road.

Salisbury was right, and that time of major maintenance needs has arrived. Costs so far this year, about $20,000, are greater than all of last year, McWithey said.

“We’re breaking down the building,” she said. “We’re just using the building for more than it can handle.”

It might be hard to tell, but the walls were recently repainted. With all the people who come through, they’re already dirty and chipped. Push bars, hinges and locks on the doors are often replaced because so many people come through Share House’s doors every day.

Vancouver Housing Authority owns Share’s two family shelters — Orchards Inn and Valley Homestead in Hazel Dell — so the housing authority takes on the costs of repairs. This year, improvements to those two shelters, along with YWCA Clark County’s SafeChoice Domestic Violence shelter, are estimated to cost $543,200. The city and county are covering most of the cost through Community Development Block Grants.

Share House, however, is owned by Share. The responsibility of soliciting bids, scheduling contractors to fix repairs and ordering replacement parts falls on Louis. She’s a trained social worker, but maintenance is becoming a bigger part of her job.

‘Horrific problem’

Back in 1998, Share never imagined Clark County would have the homelessness issues it has now. Back then, the nonprofit only worked with the men who lived at the shelter.

“And now it’s changed. The landscape has changed,” Louis said. “You have to have relationships with everybody who’s outside.”

During a single-day census of the homeless population taken Jan. 26, caseworkers and volunteers counted 269 people living unsheltered. All those people need a place to use the bathroom.

In terms of toilets for those living around downtown Vancouver, there are two at Esther Short Park, and there are portable toilets at Share’s day center, which is open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 1600 W. 20th St.

“You have to organize your entire day around where you’re going to use the bathroom or shower or eat,” Louis said.

McWithey said the current alternative place to shower is the Marshall Center, off McLoughlin Boulevard.

“And that’s it. It’s a horrific problem in our community,” McWithey said.

When people can’t shower at one of Share’s shelters, “we’re commonly the next option,” said Andy Meade, the Marshall Center’s director.

Anybody, regardless of why they want to use the public facility, can pay a daily drop-in fee that allows access to the locker rooms, gymnasium and fitness center. (The pool is currently closed because it’s under construction.) The drop-in fee is $6 for adults, $3 for youth and $4 for seniors. People who pay the fee are given a receipt, so they could leave the facility and return later in the day. The Firstenburg Center at 700 N.E. 136th Ave. is slightly more expensive with a drop-in fee of $7 for adults, $4 for youth and $5 for seniors.

Of course, the day-pass fee isn’t doable for everyone living unsheltered. McWithey said Share has not started the process of buying day passes, but that’s not off the table.

The Salvation Army is including a single shower room in its new Washougal building, but that’s a ways from the concentration of homelessness in Vancouver. While construction is moving along, it’ll be about another month until the shower — and the rest of the facility — is up and running. Washougal’s Captain William Clark Regional Park used to have private showers, but those were problematic and shut down years ago.

McWithey said a solution to the lack of restrooms, showers and laundry facilities for the homeless would be a new day center. The city of Vancouver was not able to get a sewer easement at the current day center that would’ve allowed for construction of restrooms, showers and laundry facilities. Originally, the city envisioned building a new 3,000-square-foot center on a vacant strip of land across the street from Share House. But that’s not seen as the ideal location and the city has gotten backlash from people who live and work nearby.

Meanwhile, the city has not confirmed whether it will get $200,000 in funding from the state, and talks with Clark County about using deed recording fees to help cover operating costs have stalled.

So, Vancouver continues exploring possible day center locations.