By Khalida Sarwari
For a lot of us, a hot shower is a regular part of our daily routine, but for some like Francisco “Paco” Garcia, it’s a luxury.
Garcia, 48, is an RV dweller in Redwood City with a roof over his head but little else in the way of living accommodations. To stay clean, he has to think creatively. Sometimes he goes to a local car wash and asks them to let him rinse off. Other times, he’ll use the sprinklers over at Hoover Park.
Ever since he injured himself and lost his carpentry job 10 months ago, he’s been trying to get back on his feet in Redwood City — a place he’s called home for nearly his entire life.
But it’s been difficult — especially amid the perceptions others have of people like him.
“They think we’re all bad people but I don’t blame them; it’s just ignorance on their part,” he said, sweat beads forming along the lines of his wrinkled forehead. “The majority of us on the streets, it’s not by choice. Not all of us are drug users or alcoholics.”
Twice a week, he drops by a white trailer bearing the inscription, “Dignity on Wheels” above blue soap bubbles along the bottom. The mobile hygiene truck can be found at the end of the parking lot of the Fair Oaks Community Center on Middlefield Road where for four hours twice a week it provides a hot shower and laundry services to anyone that needs those services.
More importantly, the truck provides a path to self-sufficiency, said Alicia Garcia, associate director of Project WeHOPE, a nonprofit based in East Palo Alto that helps homeless people and families in need get back on their feet through programs like Dignity on Wheels.
“When people are not clean and do not have clean clothing, they often do not access needed social and other services for which they are eligible, and they also refuse medical care,” she said. “We provide these clients with opportunities to take private showers, wash their clothes, receive minor medical attention and referrals, and occasionally receive clothing, meals and personal hygiene items.”
On a recent Wednesday, Garcia and his friend, Tony Velado, stopped by to use the laundry and shower, their arms wrapped around multiple pairs of sneakers and some stray pieces of clothing. They were put on a waiting list, handed a hygiene pack and sent off to wait on a small grassy lawn nearby where they collapse and bask in the sun, their belongings sprawled out in front of them.
Working tirelessly the entire time, Jaime Perez, an intake specialist and driver, and Silvia Romero, get the guys checked in and situated. They may not realize it, but they’re part of the reason why clients like Garcia return. He calls Perez “a hero” and “the real star.”
“They go beyond whatever their pay rate is to help people,” said Garcia. “Sometimes this is the only source we have to a hot shower and laundry. People take it for granted. We wish they could be here every day.”
“It feels so good to have some clean clothes to wear… just to know you don’t stink,” he added.
Dignity on Wheels launched in September 2015 and today operates five trucks throughout the Bay Area but is mostly concentrated in the South Bay and Peninsula. Like the truck on Middlefield Road, they offer free hot showers and laundry services four to five hours several days a week. At the Redwood City location — the program’s very first site — Perez said they serve an average of 15 to 20 people per session, the majority of them men and immigrants.
The program is looking to raise $25,000 to pay its workers and cover the costs of fuel and maintenance for its trucks, supplies such as towels, water, soap and hygiene kits.
Fresh from his shower, James “Shamus” Hogan, 63, a client of two years, finds a shady spot on the lawn next to his friend, Maria, clad in a short-sleeved checkered red shirt, red shorts and black spectacles that frame his blue eyes. His mustache is neatly trimmed and perfectly white like the color of his closely cropped hair. Hogan, too, praised Perez and Romero, saying they’re always working to make their clients feel comfortable and keep the facilities orderly. He wondered why more people that live on the streets don’t take advantage of such free services.
Like Garcia, Hogan fell on hard times years ago when he lost his landscaping business in Sacramento after a series of health issues. He moved in with his mother then eventually became homeless. But in recent years, he’s worked to improve his health by biking everywhere and living mindfully. He says he brings in enough in Social Security income to pay for most things, except housing. So he makes do at a tent encampment behind an IHOP on Whipple Avenue.
“I’m comfortable with my lifestyle,” he said. “I value every moment. If things get better and come up, so be it.”
He has a daughter in the Philippines, Adrienne, that he dotes on. She has a baby on the way. He painted the pinky and thumb nails on his left hand purple so that when he shoots pool at the Underground bar he can be reminded of them. Why purple? “It’s just a color I like,” he said.
Velado is one of the last to use the shower. As he waits, he recounts the story of his life. His wife left him and he hasn’t seen his kids in five years, he says, tears pooling around his nose. Most days, the 54-year-old lives behind bushes in a sleeping bag. He’d like to get a loan for an RV, but hasn’t had luck with the banks yet. He’s been cleaning gas stations just to survive, he said, and “get something to eat.”
“I’m going to make it again,” he says, wiping away his tears. “I don’t know how, but I will.“
But for now, he’s just happy to take a shower. He becomes impatient, however, when told by Perez and Romero to wait a little longer. But he continues to wait, laying on the grass with eyes closed, black shades perched on his head and a tattoo along his left inner forearm clearly visible — “Respect everyone.”
For more information about Dignity on Wheels, including a comprehensive schedule and locations, visit dignityonwheels.org.
THE WISH BOOK SERIES
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