The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A shower at D.C.’s new day services center leaves one homeless man feeling more than clean

The Downtown Day Services Center provides a space for people experiencing homelessness to shower, use computers and do laundry. (Bob Rives/courtesy of Moya Design Partners)

Washing up in a shower with someone’s feces at your feet seems counterproductive.

But when you have no home, there aren’t many options for what you eat, or where you sleep and shower.

Robb El said that in D.C. homeless shelters and day centers, he’s had to shower while watching where he steps.

There’s a lot about being homeless that is dehumanizing, says El, 44, who hasn’t been able to get back on his feet after spending a few months in jail three years ago.

“I sleep in a men’s dorm with 60 men who are inches away from me,” he said. He’s seen showers worse than the ones he saw in prison.

But last Tuesday, El was almost giddy, because he was about to wash off the grime of homelessness without worrying about getting dirtier.

El was waiting his turn to shower at the Downtown Day Services Center operated by the DowntownDC Business Improvement District. The center opened in late February in the basement of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, near Metro Center.

“When each person comes out, they wipe down the shower and mop down the floor,” El said, after a worker entered the shower with a bottle of cleanser. El recalled that wasn’t even the case in gyms he’d used in better times.

“I don’t want to just say we’re being treated humanely,” he said. “It exceeds the humane level.”

In a common room near the shower room, dozens of men and women sat at tables with soft R&B playing in the background. The music changes throughout the day to accommodate a clientele ranging from young adults to senior citizens. In another room, two washers and two dryers hummed, full of clients’ laundry.

Outside the shower, a man grumbled that El was taking the full 30-minute allotment, saying he had to go meet his parole officer.

Thirty minutes may seem like a long time. But Montee “Angel” Saunders, a facility assistant and sometime shower timekeeper, said it can be about more than rinsing off. The shower is a warm, sweet-smelling moment of privacy for those with none.

“It probably feels so good for them with nobody on top of them,” Saunders said.

Once a woman, relaxing under the warm water before returning to the stresses of the street, fell asleep in a shower chair that’s there for those who need it. Saunders gave her a couple of more minutes.

The shower El took that day left him feeling more than just clean. He described it in almost metaphysical ways.

“To me, it just opens up possibilities and portals and dimensions,” he said. “When you’re dirty, it shuts down opportunities, because that’s the first thing that you look at.”

He stepped out of the shower room dressed in all black. “Ready for the next episode,” he said. “Like the Dr. Dre song.”