Hand Washing for the People

By Dave Fell

In mid-March of this year, the city of Oakland, CA partnered with Alameda County to provide assistance to unsheltered residents of the area. According to a post on the city’s website dated March 13th, this partnership managed to install 42 portable toilets and wash stations at 19 new encampments (not counting the additional 20 encampments already receiving health and hygiene services, pre-pandemic). (1)

At the same time, the neighboring city of Berkeley, CA set up at least 20 hand washing stations at parks, libraries, and homeless encampments around the city. According to Deputy City Manager Paul Buddenhagen, the monthly cost for the stations is roughly $2,000. The city even created a virtual map for constituents showing the locations of the hygiene resources. (2, 3)

In Baltimore, however, the response of leadership was much less urgent. In April, The Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services (MOHS) posted a list of items it needed help procuring, and at the top of that list was “mobile hand washing stations” so that unhoused or intermittently housed folks can stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic by regularly and thoroughly washing their hands and bodies. This is when I fired off that first email, beginning a long and frustrating correspondence with a small, underfunded, and understaffed city agency.

The short version is that I linked MOHS up with a close friend who manages a hardware store in the city, and as a team we decided on and ordered (on the city’s dime) a number of “camp showers” to be put up in strategic locations throughout Baltimore. The plan was that MOHS, with assistance from the Department of Public Works (DPW), would install and maintain these camp showers. 

Very simply, a camp shower is a (somewhat) strong vinyl bag that holds 5 gallons of water. Attached is a hose and a little showerhead with an on/off switch. Just affix it a tree branch or a street sign, provide some soap, and there you have it: a DIY hand washing station. (It should be noted that the pre-fab style of wash station that you may have seen at Artscape or your favorite EDM festival were either out of stock or seriously price-gouged, ruling out that option).

Mission accomplished! The city’s got it from here, right? 

(pause for uproarious laughter)

No, the city don’t got it. 

Remember, if you want to derail a simple, inexpensive action aimed at helping the unhoused population of Baltimore, just insert a bureaucrat into the process! A mere four days after MOHS paid for and picked up the camp showers from my friend’s hardware store, I was told that a “consultant” had been hired to inspect the way MOHS operates. 

This “consultant” did little more than kick the can down the road and waste time by requiring a proposal for the hand washing station project that would then have to be supported by every member of City Council! They claimed to have received a lot of push back on this idea and wanted to “make sure that resources are provided appropriately with the full support of all agencies and communities involved.” 

Ok, so let me understand–you want unhoused Baltimoreans (who are already at the converging point of multiple systemic crises) to wait patiently while people who have homes, running water, soap, income, and food spend weeks deciding whether the homeless will be allowed to wash their hands during the deadliest public health pandemic in our lifetime? A pandemic in which one of the strongest lines of defense is HAND WASHING?

We ended up clawing back the camp showers from MOHS, and installed and maintained a few ourselves (with some inspiring results), but ultimately this was not even close to a permanent solution, and as a loosely affiliated group of activists, we didn’t have coffers of money to fund something more robust, so the project fizzled.

Now that October has come and the COVID-19 pandemic is still in full swing, I can’t help but remember what Mayor Jack Young told the Baltimore Sun all the way back on May 5th:

“We’re going to always take care of our homeless population, no matter what.” (4)

He was responding to questions about why on earth there was a major leadership and staff shake up at MOHS just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to grip Baltimore.

Mayor Young is straight up lying, because there has been grassroots energy advocating for public hygiene resources since March and absolutely nothing has been done by the City of Baltimore to make this common sense solution a reality. In fact, more effort was put into blocking the project!

It was a no-brainer for Oakland and Berkeley, because in those places real, substantial homeless outreach is not unprecedented like it is here. Every resident of Baltimore deserves health, dignity, and protection from death, disease, and despair. 

But for now, we will build our own (stronger, more permanent) hand washing stations. We will install them and we will stand next to them and make a hell of a lot of noise until city leaders recognize that THIS IS THEIR JOB! 


  1. https://www.oaklandca.gov/resources/covid-19-support-for-unsheltered-residents
  2. https://www.berkeleyside.com/2020/03/13/berkeley-sets-up-22-hand-washing-stations-to-help-the-homeless-and-others-from-getting-coronavirus
  3. https://berkeley.maps.arcgis.com/apps/View/index.html?appid=715bb83772db4b85b64c44fc5dbce21f&extent=-122.3410,37.8350,-122.2143,37.8973
  4. https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-homeless-services-shake-up-20200505-6tiozav2sfcwvom7vtc6qwvf5e-story.html
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