...Aint nobody dope as me... I dress so fresh and clean.. so fresh, so clean… clean..

root - Posted on 31 December 1969

Showering is Not a Crime...
a narrative essay

by Christina Heatherton/Poverty Studies Community Journalist, Poverty Studies Mentor; Dee Gray

Today I’ll wash away a small humiliation. I’ll scrub with strong sweetly scented soap to suffocate some lingering shame. With hot water I’ll make my skin blush where it is too tense and or too flabby to be pretty. I tried to get on a plane today, flying standby to see my family. Under a stewardess’ high-heeled, thin-faced, thickly eye-lined scrutiny, my clumsy grey skirt and too bright stained yellow sweater strained to be respectable. It was the nicest thing I had brought and something that had made me feel beautiful that morning. After looking me up and down like a picky buyer she spat out a sharp “No” in a polished British accent. “There is a business attire dress code on this airlines” she informed me. “I certainly hope you wouldn’t wear that to an interview.” Unable to get on the plane, I quietly left the airport, careful to avoid my reflection in the sliding glass doors.

On the $5 BART ride home, I try to rationalize being a middle class college student found guilty of a crime of poverty. My mom will yell at my stupidity, my father will be embarrassed, and my sister will offer me some tender pity. I want to go home and wash off the business before it consumes me. When you can’t jump out of your skin, I decide, the next best thing is to jump into a shower.

My roommates tell me that the shower is a sacred and private place. I agree as I think of sudsing those preened, painted, and shaming eyes off my body. I think how there will be nothing more telling of where I’ve been and what I’ve been through than the water that will pass between my toes and into the drain.

The few times Jenna comes over to use the shower, the drain usually swallows more than some prim flight attendant’s disapproval. She scrubs away the scrutiny of thousands of eyes, scorning or obscuring her for her homelessness. The shower is a sacred private place my roommates tell me but it is their sacred private place. While they don’t seem to mind when my college friends use the shower, they are decidedly uncomfortable with Jenna using it. They tell me they are afraid for their things, for their safety, for their privacy. They are unswayed that Jenna and I have been friends longer than I have known either of them. They are uneasy that she is getting too comfortable in our apartment and gently threaten that the management might not be too happy with the situation. An insane logic develops: Jenna can not take a shower because she is homeless and does not have a shower of her own. In other words, she can not take a shower because she is not clean enough.

On June 25th, as I affixed a “Showering is not a crime” sticker to my sweater, I wished that my roommates could have been at the school board meeting with me to hear the debate over the Mission High School Shower Project. Every weekend for the past 2 1/2 years the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco has been opening up the showers at Mission High School to the many homeless and vehicularly housed day laborers, queer, transgender, pregnant and elder people who use it. With the shower, these populations are able to access federal buildings, enter restaurants and other restricted public spaces. As Sharon Edwards, a vehicularly housed resident notes, she is able to keep her job because of the program. Many affiliated people speak of the “dignity” and “self confidence” that the program restores. Cassandra Tuttle, the psychiatric director of the Project described the “tight close-knit family” that the project has built.

The residents of the near Dolores Park wanted to deny the School Board’s permit to the project making arguments similar to my roommates’. They are afraid for their safety, for their property, and for their privacy. While they are sympathetic to the problems of homelessness, they are uncomfortable with a solution located in their backyard.

As LS Wilson of the Coalition on Homelessness, which has been committed to ensure the continuation of the project, testifies, the neighboring residents have been slowly dismantling the nearby services in a misguided effort to expel homeless people from the area. “Closing the project won’t stop people from coming into the park” he explains. As many echo, the problem is homelessness, not the shower project.

Penny Nixon, the president of the Metropolitan Community Church, expanded “we could never do enough clean up to satisfy the problems of the city….we are not part of the problem, we are part of the solution.”

The School Board agreed. The measure was passed with recommendations from some School Board officials that the project be a model for the city.

Speaking with Sharon Edwards outside the meeting, our conversation drifted from the Shower Project to the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and 70s. We discussed how the exclusion of homeless people from services and facilities is similar to Jim Crow segregation. While the Shower Project is a necessary victory, what remains are the social standards that privilege certain notions of cleanliness that underlie this current discrimination. It is with these standards that my roommates have demanded that I ban Jenna from our shower.

After finally getting home today, I step into my long-awaited shower. I look down into the gulping drain and wonder how I’ll respond to my roommates when they ask me about the “Showering is Not a Crime” sticker that I have recently affixed to our bathroom door.


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