In addition to searching for food, water, and shelter, finding ways to stay clean and maintain good hygiene is part of the difficult daily struggle faced by more than 700 people who are homeless in Tuolumne County.
Jamestown couple Dick and Hazel Mitchell, founders of the nonprofit Give Someone a Chance, are hoping to ease some of the burden by launching a mobile shower facility next year.
“It’s about self dignity and social acceptance so they can get a job,” said Hazel Mitchell, a retired nurse. “It’s also for health reasons because, as everyone knows, you have to stay clean to be healthy.”
The couple has worked tirelessly over the past couple of years to provide more bathing facilities for the county’s homeless population.
There are three places throughout the county that provide showers: Interfaith Community Social Services in East Sonora, the Tuolumne County Behavioral Health Enrichment Center in downtown Sonora, and the First Presbyterian Church of the 49ers in Columbia.
“If it was more convenient and accessible to them, there’s a higher probability they would use it,” said Dick Mitchell.
After being turned down by the Mother Lode Fair Board of Directors in 2015 to use the livestock showers at the fairgrounds, the Mitchells took matters into their own hands and began raising money to convert an old bus that the county donated into mobile showers inspired by a similar concept in Modesto.
The couple’s ambitious project is now nearing completion, and they expect the bus to be on the road by March.
“It’s more involved than just putting a couple showers in the back of a bus that’s been gutted,” said Dick Mitchell, a retired engineer.
The Mitchells formed a design team of local volunteers with varied professional backgrounds that consists of Donald Ronalter, the team’s chief engineer, Roger Lindahn, primary contractor, Craig Hempler, design engineer, Danny Murphy, electrician and plumber, David Fichter, chief financial officer, Harold Mullins, marketing, and Jim Caywood, who documented the process on video.
The team has met weekly since March for three hours at a time to work out the logistics.
“Almost every aspect was contributed by somebody else,” Ronalter said. “No two of us have the same background, and we have fun collaborating, but we do have differences of opinion now and then.”
They have pinned down three locations throughout the county that have agreed to let them park their bus for four hours a day once or twice per week, including the Jamestown Christian Fellowship Church in Jamestown, the David Lambert Community Drop-In Center in Sonora, and the Tuolumne United Methodist Church in Tuolumne.
The Mitchells said they plan to put a schedule for the bus on their organization’s website once it launches.
Originally envisioned as having two tanks, one for freshwater and another for storing graywater after people use the showers, the team decided it would be more efficient to outfit the bus with hookups for water, sewer and electrical.
Much of the conversion is already complete, said Lindahn, who did most of the work.
The only remaining things left to do is complete some of the drainage, plumbing, shower seats, grab bars and have the entire interior sprayed with rubberized bedliner to make it waterproof and airtight.
Dick Mitchell said many of the materials used to convert the bus were donated or discounted by a number of local businesses, including Complete RV of Sonora, Slakey Brothers Plumbing and HVAC Supply, Sonora Lumber, Central Heat and Air, JS West Propane, and EZ Tankless Water Heaters.
Still, the couple will need sustained support from the community to keep the bus operational four days a week.
They are accepting donations of items that will be provided to each person who takes a shower on the bus. Some of what they need includes clean socks, new men and women’s underwear, feminine hygiene products, razors, hairbrushes, combs, bath towels, washcloths, toothbrushes, and toothpaste.
A 40-foot-by-30-foot space with at least a 10-foot door is also needed to store the bus.
The couple is seeking cash donations and grant money because they will need to pay one employee to work 32 hours per week driving the bus, setting it up and cleaning it each day, as well as cover costs associated with gas, laundry and maintenance.
They have also formed a fundraising committee to develop ideas for raising money to cover the ongoing operating costs.
Over the past seven years, the Mitchells have worked closely and built relationships within the county’s homeless community by going out and talking to them at their camps, training them for job opportunities and providing transportation, among other support.
The Mitchells have often said the federally funded homeless censuses that are typically conducted every other year in January were grossly undercounting the true scope of the problem.
They were vindicated last month by a homeless census conducted in late September and funded by the Sonora Area Foundation that found 711 people in the county are homeless, more than quadruple what winter censuses have found in recent years.
Of those 711 people, 31 identified themselves as military veterans.
The Mitchells were instrumental in locating more than 25 homeless veterans in 2015 that made the county eligible for the first time to receive 10 vouchers through the Department of Housing and Urban Development that cover most or all of a veteran’s monthly rent.
They said the plan is to seek more vouchers using the numbers from the latest census.
“Our organization has been preaching the correct numbers of homeless people for years,” said Dick Mitchell. “I think it’s an educational process for the public to see what these numbers really mean.”
For more information on how to donate, volunteer, or to request a presentation on the organization’s work, contact Give Someone a Chance at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 206-8065.
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.