It’s midday in Plano when the line begins to form along 18th street—even before the truck rounds the corner. Men appear from alleyways, inside cars and from behind shuttered stores. They arrive just as Streetside Showers, a mobile trailer equipped with two showers and bathroom stalls, pulls into an empty parking lot.

Walmart is no longer open around the clock and gyms and fitness centers are closed. In a time when hand-washing and cleanliness are important to ward off the spread of COVID-19, finding a place to take a shower or use the restroom has become more difficult for a growing population without a home.

“We expect it to get worse as more people lose their jobs and can’t pay their rent or mortgage,” says Streetside Showers owner Lance Olinski.

The McKinney man and two friends haul two mobile trucks across Collin County and beyond offering free access to showers and restrooms once a week in McKinney, Irving, Denton, Plano, and Florida, where some communities have begun setting up port-a-potties to help with the
demand.

Olinski has ordered a third shower truck that is expected to arrive in North Texas this week. He says his organization is gearing up for the summer when he expects the number of homeless to rise even more with the downturn in the economy.

The number of people who have used the showers since the pandemic began shutting down businesses in March is up by 10 to 15 percent at all of its five locations, which now is helping 100 to 125 people each week, he says.

“Everyone is telling us the best way to combat this virus is cleanliness,” he says. “But if you don’t have a home and the businesses are shut, where do you go?”

Olinski says he wants to help, even if it’s just once a week in each location. During this pandemic crisis, volunteers who normally help with the showers have been asked to stay home. Now three staff members make the runs.

He partners with a church to provide a sack lunch for the people who use the showers. He also offers a fresh pair of socks, new underwear and a bag with toothpaste, deodorant and other travel-sized toiletries donated to him by individuals and organizations.

“We used to also offer community as we would sit around and talk and eat together, but with social distancing we call it Shower and Go,” he says. “It’s hard because sometimes we’re the only ones they have to talk to all day, but we want everyone to stay safe.”

He says he disinfects the showers and restrooms after each use. He hasn’t seen anyone who has shown any symptoms of the virus.

“When you are on the street for awhile the body gets pretty tough but we want to help those who need it to stay clean so they have a better chance of fighting this virus,” he says.

Homelessness does not discriminate between cities and suburbs. One third of Plano’s population spends more than 30 percent of their annual income on housing alone. Many are one missed electric bill away from having a nice house with no power—or one eviction away from having no house at all.

Olinski saw the need before the pandemic, three years ago in Collin County after he said he saw a homeless man trying to bathe at a sink in a McKinney rest stop. He raised $22,000 through private donations and bought his first Streetside Showers trailer that includes two showers, two toilets and two sinks. The first year, 1,000 people used the showers; 3,700 came the second year and last year he served about 6,000 people.

As needs rise, the coronavirus crisis has also caused donations to take a nosedive, he says. People who are losing their jobs are cutting back.

Last week, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins told commissioners court the North Texas Food Bank has informed him it is running out of money.

The face of homelessness is changing. Of the North Texans needing food, 70 percent said it’s their first time visiting a food bank.

In Collin County, some non-profits offer services for women and children but no facility offers an overnight emergency shelter for homeless men.

During the annual Point in Time Homeless Census in 2019 by the Collin County Homeless Coalition volunteers recorded 558 people in Collin County were identified as homeless. They calculate the census by walking through Collin County on one of the coldest nights of the year, and finding who they can. One in three were children, one in five were fleeing domestic violence. One in five are over the age of
55 years, two out of three held jobs and one in 10 are U.S. military veterans. In addition to the census numbers, another 1,300 students in the school districts in Collin County self-reported as being homeless.

The 2020 Point in Time counts are still being tabulated but they are expected to be about the same as last year, says Ron Johnson, a member of the board of directors for the Collin County Homeless Coalition.

But that could change with the current health crisis taking its toll on the economy. He says the coalition has started holding weekly remote meetings to address concerns and growing needs during the pandemic. It used to meet monthly. All eyes are on what landlords, mortgage companies, businesses and the economy will do over the next two months. Eviction notices are currently on hold as residents await stimulus checks to help them through this crisis.

“These are hard, unpredictable times and we need to lean on each other for help,” Johnson says.

Outside the Collin County Assistance Center at 900 18th Street in Plano the last person has finished his shower around 5 p.m. Olinski will be back with his trailer at 2 p.m. next Wednesday.

He wipes down the sink and faucets and shuts the door to his truck before heading back on the road to his next destination.

His other stops are 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Tuesdays at the Crises Ministries at 114 E. 2nd St. in downtown Irving, Fridays at Our Daily Bread at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church at 300 W. Oak St. in Denton and Saturdays at Hope Fellowship Church at 1702 W. University Drive in
McKinney.

“Here in the suburbs we don’t often think there’s homelessness in our own backyard,” Olinski says. “You don’t always find the needy under a downtown bridge. Anyone can fall on hard times. This pandemic is opening a lot of eyes —hopefully a lot of hearts, too.”

For more information or to make a donation visit streetsideshowers.com.

Annette Nevins

Annette Bernhard Nevins is a Plano-based award-winning journalist who specializes in breaking news and features. She has held staff positions at several Texas newspapers, including The Dallas Morning News,...

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