Following the example of Pope Francis, who opened a shower room and laundry facility for the homeless in Rome three years ago, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago unveiled similar services inside its downtown headquarters Monday.
Services also include access to a clothing donation closet and a variety of social services. The agency also will continue to serve meals to the homeless five days a week out of a renovated and upgraded kitchen.
“Our guests will have comfort of a warm shower, toiletries, bedding, clothing,” said Monsignor Michael Boland, president of Catholic Charities. “These small mercies which most of us take for granted can help preserve health and restore hope to those who live at the margins of society. They can be a first step toward a life of self-sufficiency.”
For more than 17 years, Catholic Charities’ headquarters has been home to an evening supper program that serves sit-down dinners and to-go meals to more than 250 individuals and families five days a week.
Guests who come for a meal on Tuesday night have a chance to sign up for a 30-minute shower slot between 10 a.m. and noon the following day. Each shower client receives a towel, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, a razor, shaving cream, deodorant and a change of clothes. They also will be able to use the laundry services to wash and dry their clothes and bedding.
Up and running for the past two weeks, showers have been booked solid with a waiting list each Wednesday. The agency hopes to expand the program to more hours and days, but that capacity depends on volunteers.
The program at Catholic Charities is modeled after a similar ministry on Tuesday afternoons at Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue. Unlike shelters, both ministries offer bathing opportunities to clients who don’t live there.
According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, there are 80,384 homeless Chicagoans, including people who are relying on friends or loved ones for temporary residence.
“Thousands of people are experiencing homelessness in our city,” said Mary Tarullo, the coalition’s associate director of policy. “So we certainly have a long way to go in making sure everybody is housed. Showers are a great step in the right direction.”
“It’s serving a great need for places where people can take care of themselves in dignity,” she said.
Matthew Shay, 27, a substance abuse counselor who handles the intake for the pilot program, said the washrooms offer hope to people struggling with homelessness — both symbolically and practically speaking. Not only does water symbolize rebirth in rituals such as baptism, he said, but hot showers can also bring about a life-giving transformation.
Shay speaks from experience. He struggled with addiction and homelessness for about 18 months before receiving the help he needed from Catholic Charities.
“When they give up hygiene, they’re mentally giving up and feeling hopeless,” Shay said. “So when you provide that to somebody who doesn’t have it, it provides a sense of normalcy that common Americans take for granted. It’s a simple pleasure for us — simple pleasures that are really a privilege.”