One creative step in the fight against homelessness in Toronto
Deborah Daniel saw a problem and decided to fix it—by turning a TTC bus into a mobile shower unit
By Alex Laws
It’s hard to miss Deborah Daniel, even in a crowded hipster coffee shop, and her beaming smile and open arms quickly make it clear that shaking hands isn’t going to be an option.
It’s this contagious positivity that has helped her accomplish the seemingly impossible: Securing a former TTC bus to become Canada’s first mobile shower and laundry facility for Torontonians experiencing homelessness, estimated five years ago by the Homeless Hub to include more than five thousand people.
“If I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it,” says Daniel, who, without any experience in the music industry, started an organization called Women in Music and Art (WIMA) in 2015 to help female artists across the city get more gigs.
Last June, Daniel was at the Toronto Reference Library when she discovered a woman washing herself in the restroom sink. Upset by the lack of privacy, Daniel hid in a stall until the woman had finished so as not to embarrass her.
“That day I walked out of the library and I said to myself: ‘I am going to do something about this,’” she says. “And then a bus drove past me on Bloor Street and I said, ‘That’s it!’”
Fast-forward a year and Daniel has established Hygiene on Wheels to provide essential services, such as hot showers and clean clothes, with the help of a city bus that can bring these services straight to the people who need them most. She set up a GoFundMe page to raise money and secured a TTC bus that’s to be retrofitted with two shower cubicles, washrooms and laundry facilities.
Originally from Dominica in the Caribbean, Daniel moved to Montreal in 1983 and relocated to Toronto 15 years ago. She juggles WIMA and raising her 13-year old daughter with running Hygiene on Wheels, but refuses to take credit for the latter. “It’s a community project—I just asked for the bus. It’s taken on a life of its own,” she says. As soon as she posted on Facebook last December that she’d secured a bus, she was overwhelmed by an outpouring of local support: people in the community have volunteered to offer everything from haircuts to pedicures and massages.
Even the fire service offered help to overcome a distinct obstacle—the water source—by giving Daniel permission to use local fire hydrants. There’s plenty left to arrange before the buses launch later this summer, such as permits for the safe disposal of waste water and the hiring of staff, which will include retired TTC drivers, caseworkers and cleaners.
Rather than driving to random locations, Hygiene on Wheels is partnering with established organizations that visit areas where people experiencing homelessness already congregate. “The goal is to meet people at their level,” says Daniel. The bus will follow Ve’ahavta, a program that distributes food around Toronto every evening, and on Thursdays in winter it will park outside the Holy Blossom Temple’s Out of the Cold program, which feeds 160 guests every week. Robert Charendoff, who has been involved with the program for 18 years, joined the Hygiene on Wheels team to help it reach its $100,000 goal in start-up costs. “Hygiene is a huge concern,” he says. “The few places that have showers are extremely inadequate compared to the number that are needed.”
Charendoff has plenty of first-hand experience. “We have a regular guest who is the sweetest man and he knows that he smells really bad,” he says. “He has no way of showering or cleaning his clothes, so he requests to be seated separately, so he doesn’t disturb anyone while they’re eating.”
“It’s a community project—I just asked for the bus. It’s taken on a life of its own.”
The implications of cleanliness go further than social alienation, says Toronto city councillor Joe Mihevc, who supports the initiative. “There is a real correlation between mental health and hygiene,” he says. “When people look their best, they can feel their best and can return more easily to mainstream society.” While many people in shelters have jobs, he says, many more aren’t employed because they’re not appropriately attired.
What started as one woman’s passion project is highlighting how the needs of those experiencing homeless are finally being better understood. “In days of old we offered a mat or a cot and then you were back on the street on your own,” Mihevc says. “Now we’re realizing that the only way to solve homelessness is to give a deeper evolution of services.” With people like Daniel around, it’s more possible than ever. “I don’t have experience working with the homeless,” she says. “But I can put myself in their shoes.”