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‘The best thing they could do’: ShowerUp Wichita provides a unique resource for unhoused people

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Celia Hack
/
KMUW
Volunteers with ShowerUp Wichita host an event outside of St. John’s Episcopal Church on Thursdays during the summer and fall months.

ShowerUp Wichita has provided more than 2,000 showers to people who don’t have stable housing since 2020.

Driving south on Topeka Street, Mike McFerren is tugging an eye-catching trailer behind a blue-and-white pickup truck one that elicits calls from people on the street.

“That’s what I need, that shower right there,” one woman calls to him from the street. “I need that shower!”

McFerren, his window rolled down, leans out to respond.

“We’re gonna be at 3rd and Topeka, hon.”

McFerren is a volunteer with ShowerUp Wichita. He’s bringing a mobile shower unit downtown to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where anyone looking for a shower can sign up to use it.

Paul Schmitz founded ShowerUp in Nashville in 2016. The nonprofit’s goal is to provide showers to people who need them, many of whom are experiencing homelessness.

“A shower is almost the very basic level of dignity for most people,” Schmitz said. “We think a shower is the thing that can start getting people to think about, ‘OK, you know what, maybe tomorrow, I could go to that job interview. Or maybe tomorrow I could take care of some of these personal issues.’”

Before ShowerUp, Schmitz spent years volunteering with the unhoused community. He handed out sack lunches in Wichita, where he lived for nearly 10 years, and then in Nashville, where he moved in 2013.

In 2016, Schmitz said he felt a divine inspiration to take a step further: While scrolling through his newsfeed on his phone, he saw a mobile unit with showers and toilets.

“I thought, ‘I wonder if we could do something like that for the unhoused population?’ ” Schmitz said. “And it was in that moment that literally, I felt like God was saying to me, ‘Uh, you're gonna do that.’ ”

Schmitz said that in Nashville and many other cities, hundreds of people who are homeless may only have access to a handful of showers.

“Oftentimes, these locations where there are showers are only open during the day, and you'd be surprised the number of people who are experiencing homelessness, who have jobs,” Schmitz said.

When Schmitz started, he wasn’t sure how he could make it work. Could he convert a trailer into shower stalls? Turns out it was possible. Each mobile shower unit is equipped with a generator that powers an air conditioner and a water heater.

“I wanted to make sure that the showers had a few things that were special and intentional,” Schmitz said. “One, they're gonna be private … because if I was taking a shower, that's what I would want.”

Word of Nashville’s mobile shower unit spread to Wichita, and Schmitz got a call asking whether he could expand here. In 2020, ShowerUp Wichita started.

That’s when McFerren, who is a parishioner at St. John’s, got involved. Like everyone else with ShowerUp Wichita, he’s a volunteer he helps set up the shower unit, cleans it between uses and launders the towels used each week.

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Celia Hack
/
KMUW
ShowerUp volunteer Tim Loftin sets up the mobile shower unit.

For some, connecting with Shower Up is a turning point toward stability, McFerren said. One woman found housing after connecting with him and ShowerUp, he said.

“She has a clean apartment with her own shower in it that she can shower and bathe anytime that she would choose to,” McFerren said.

People using the showers say the organization is one of the most necessary resources for those experiencing homelessness.

“This is the best thing they could do for homeless people,” said Steven, who said he has relied on ShowerUp since it began. “A lot of people think of us as less than. We’re not. … We all deserve things.”

The showers aren’t the only thing McFerren and his team provide. They also give out bananas, water bottles, granola bars, socks and underwear at tables set up outside the shower. And plenty of people stop by looking for other necessities like dog food that volunteers do their best to find.

Right now, ShowerUp Wichita offers limited hours. The organization partners with St. John’s to set up shower events on Thursday nights during summer and fall months. It also partners with Church on the Street, which offers showers on Sunday mornings year-round at Central and Market.

Schmitz said he would love to raise more money so the team could hire a staffer and increase its hours.

“In other cities, we're doing an event every day, often multiple events in a day.” Schmitz said. “We'd love to see that happen for Wichita.”

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.