For the houseless residents of Santa Cruz, meeting basic hygienic needs can be trying. Access to bathrooms, showers and clean laundry is often limited.
Hygiene is imperative for those living on the streets due to constant exposure to disease and infection. Access to shelter, jobs and even bathrooms is often determined by acceptance from others, a commodity that can itself require good personal hygiene.
“If you smell good and you look good and you feel good, people treat you better — all people,” said houseless resident Jason Hill. “You won’t be able to go to work and people stay away from you [if you’re not clean]. And that kind of brings your spirits down.”
Laura Tucker, a houseless activist who was once houseless herself, said the disrespect can drive people to drugs, depression and suicide while living on the streets.
“A lot of [houseless] people are so put-together they might look less like a homeless person than most housed people, because they’re really trying to fly under the radar,” Tucker said. “You’re in a constant state of vigilance.”
Food Not Bombs co-founder and former houseless individual Keith McHenry said housed people often believe those on the streets are simply not responsible enough to bathe. In reality, maintaining good hygiene on the streets of Santa Cruz is a job in itself.
For those living on the streets, the closest bathroom can be blocks away and is often restricted. There are only a handful of bathrooms accessible to houseless individuals in Santa Cruz. The most frequently used public restrooms are on the side of two downtown parking structures, the Metro Center, the library and Bookshop Santa Cruz.
Houseless resident Maggie Rochelle described being told that the bathroom key was “lost” at the CVS on Mission Street before finding out it was withheld from her after asking to speak to the manager.
For houseless residents who menstruate, it’s often difficult to access tampons and pads. Even if they are able to find a bathroom, menstrual hygiene product dispensers require payment and are often empty.
The public port-a-potties at various locations downtown can be difficult to use for many houseless people who are unable to bring belongings or bikes in with them. Houseless resident Bonny Hill explained she had some of her belongings taken from outside while she used the bathroom. The port-a-potties are also inaccessible for many people with disabilities.
Limited access also creates long lines. Hill said she sometimes waits up to half an hour to use the bathroom.
Many houseless people develop ways of overcoming bathroom difficulties. Some take a water bottle to sleep since public restrooms close at night, while others befriend a local shop owner for bathroom access. At Chipotle, where people are required to buy something before using the bathroom, houseless residents sometimes take receipts out of the trash to get the bathroom code.
Accessible showers are also few and far between. The only options are the St. Francis soup kitchen and Salvation Army shelter. Many houseless individuals will go months without a shower.
Like the bathrooms, people find their own individual solutions, like getting a membership to a local gym, washing off with towelettes in a bathroom and using the surfer showers on the beach. Houseless resident Bonny Hill said she tries to get a motel room one or two nights a month, but has difficulty finding a cheap one.
Houseless resident Jennifer Langston is able to draw herself a bath every once in a while.
“I’ll fill up a gallon of water and get myself a bucket and do kind of like the old-style western days bath and put it over the fire if I have enough patience or I’m not tired,” Langston said.
Disease and infections are prevalent in the houseless community in large part due to the lack of easy access to bathing. Activist Keith McHenry recounted a story of a man whose skin condition — caused by lack of bathing — required him to stay in the hospital for a month.
Clean clothes make all the difference but are hard to come by.
Frequent visits to a laundromat are often economically infeasible for houseless people. To make matters worse, several laundromats are known for exclusion and harassment of houseless customers.
“It’s been a month since I’ve been to the laundromat. It’s expensive,” said houseless resident Bonny Hill. “And you gotta sit there the whole time, otherwise people will come in and take whole dryers full of your stuff.”
It’s often easier to get new clothes from Goodwill or shelters than to wash existing ones. Houseless activist Laura Tucker described constantly throwing away bedding because it would get wet and dirty in the winter. This predicament also leads to litter around town.
Some ways around the laundromat include washing clothes in a bathroom, or, as in houseless resident and activist Maggie Rochelle’s case, using soap from showers and washing clothes off in the river.
Survival and Shame
Because meeting hygienic needs is so difficult, many houseless individuals struggle with self-esteem problems. Hygiene not only affects how they present themselves to the world, but also how they feel about themselves.
“The number one important thing to do is be clean,” said houseless resident Jennifer Langston. “If you feel good, you’re going to have a good attitude. It has a lot to do with how you take on everything.”
Lack of respect from the broader Santa Cruz community can be devastating. Formerly houseless activist Laura Tucker said she considered respect and dignity basic human needs. When those are denied, people’s first response is often to stop caring altogether, Tucker said.
“At a certain point you kind of blow it off because it’s a done deal. No stranger is going to look at you with compassion or kindness. […] Eventually I remember I just didn’t give a shit what people thought,” Tucker said. “You just can’t care. You can’t care and survive at the same time.”