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Activist works to get mobile shower up and running for Toronto’s homeless community

Deborah Daniel is seen in Toronto, on Dec. 21.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Deborah Daniel was fighting back tears of joy when she received word from the TTC that it had approved her application for a bus to be donated to her local initiative – a mobile shower unit that will serve Toronto's homeless communities.

That was Dec. 6. Now, Ms. Daniel is the midst of getting Hygiene On Wheels (HOW) up to speed.

"Our goal is to have people walk off the bus, go to a job interview and feel confident about it. It's going to provide and restore dignity to the homeless – a bath can be a start," Ms. Daniel said.

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Toronto is suffering a homelessness crisis, said Tim Richter, founder of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. Toronto Mayor John Tory announced on Dec. 21 that the Better Living Centre at Exhibition Place is being equipped with 100 beds this winter to help attend to the 5,253 homeless individuals that are sleeping outdoors or in shelters, according to city statistics.

Mr. Richter said an opportunity exists for Ms. Daniel to connect those in need with a network of Toronto homeless shelters and agencies that are working to meet the demands of Canada's largest municipal homeless population.

"The opportunity is that it will help to be a stepping stone for connecting people with services and support. Toronto's shelter system is very crowded and this can provide some welcome relief," Mr. Richter said.

The idea for HOW came to Ms. Daniel when she sat down to do some work at the Toronto Reference Library this past summer. A group of women were using the bathroom to wash off when Ms. Daniel realized that she'd overlooked a routine privilege of her day.

"I thought to myself, 'I took a shower this morning – that's what rejuvenates us when you don't want to get up and go to work or school,'" Ms. Daniel said.

"The homeless don't have that option." Ms. Daniel is the first to acknowledge that she can't do this project alone. She's never worked with the homeless or for any organizations that assist them. But the outpouring of support she's received on social media has helped connect her to those who do.

Andrea Yovorsky had just returned to Toronto after volunteering for two years in Brisbane with Orange Sky, a mobile laundry service for the homeless in seventeen Australian cities, when an old flatmate got in touch after seeing HOW shared online. "With HOW in its infancy, there's an opportunity to take the lessons I've learned and use them to address some of the issues faced by the homeless and also raise awareness about how we can better meet them as well," said Ms. Yovorsky, who has joined HOW's marketing team.

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The 14-year-old bus has already been stripped of TTC logos, its Presto reader and other reusable parts. But the list of things left to be done is lengthy. The bus still needs to be towed, replated and road certified.

Ms. Daniel hopes to have the bus operational by this summer, equipped with two showers, a bathroom, a washer and dryer, monthly haircut services, as well as a trailer with donated clothes in tow. But in addition to fine tuning the vehicle's aesthetics, Ms. Daniel must prepare for the varied needs of the homeless.

"It's a logistical situation – where are they going to end up? Where are they going to get clean clothes? What about plumbing and heating?" said David Lynch, executive director at Good Shepherd Ministries homeless shelters, who applauds Ms. Daniel's undertaking.

However, he says, launching such a project is challenging and has its fair share of difficulties. "It's all very well to jump in and say you want to do something, but you also need the skills to do so. A lot of our homeless have very particular needs."

But Ms. Daniel is ready for the obstacles ahead. Once operational, she envisions HOW making a daily three- to four-hour visit to different homeless communities in Toronto. But before that can happen, she has to address the cost of repurposing the bus, which she anticipates could be as much as $100,000. She's assembled a team of four other volunteers who are assisting in reaching out to homeless agencies and potential sponsors to collaborate on services and help levy the cost.

"There's definitely a learning curve," Ms. Daniel said. "I want people to see positivity and change and that the city of Toronto is coming together to help those in need."

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