Swing by Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Lakewood on any given Thursday evening, and you might be surprised by what you find. There, a weekly gathering of volunteers come together to serve the local homeless population, offering dental exams, medical services, and hot showers—all via mobile facilities. Some weeks, folks can even do their laundry, get a haircut, or check-out books courtesy of the Jefferson County Public Library. There’s always warm food and camaraderie, and despite the location, there’s no proselytizing.
Dubbed “the Table,” these Bethlehem events, complete with a plethora of services, are the brainchild of Pastor Drew Ross. When Ross left his congregation in Florida and began preaching at Bethlehem in 2014, he wasted no time engaging Lakewood’s homeless population, working with the Jefferson County government, speaking at conferences, and helping to shape public policy on issues such as homeless and childhood hunger.
“If I was talking about social justice or trends of our homeless population, I would bring some homeless friends with me to also speak at these conferences,” says Ross. Leading up to one such event, however, all of his friends turned him down. Confused and looking for answers, a man named Dan finally explained why: he and his homeless friends were tired of being the smelly people in the room.
“I had no idea that I was robbing the dignity from some of my friends,” says Ross, “and I realized how important it is for me to be clean, for me to make sure I don’t smell.”
Around the same time, Ross was meeting with Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul, and the two began brainstorming about a mobile shower truck for the city of Lakewood. On a whim, Ross wrote to the Lutheran Church Extension Fund—a nonprofit offering faith-based financial services to congregations across the country—making his case for a $78,000 grant. To his surprise, Bethlehem’s proposal was approved. That money covered the trailer, which he named Living Well Showers, as well as some startup costs. In October 2017, Bethlehem was able to offer its first showers to Lakewood’s homeless population. Today, Living Well Showers runs exclusively on donations (it costs about $600 a month to operate the truck) and has grown thanks almost exclusively to word-of-mouth communication.
Currently, the truck has a standing date in Lakewood’s Mean Street Ministry on Tuesday mornings and Bethlehem Thursday evenings, as well as at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless on East Colfax in Denver on Thursday mornings, and Arvada’s Community Table, a food bank, on Friday mornings. There’s also a monthly event at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Denver. Those looking to help out at an existing event, or considering hosting an event in their own community, can check the weekly schedule on the Living Well Showers’ website and contact volunteer coordinator Jennifer Leasure there. Since the truck’s inception just over a year ago, the program has served up 2,200 showers and counting.
The services on offer have also grown, although right now the Table events are the only consistent locations where everything—from the laundry truck to the libraries—comes together. “We started the showers and that was our first step in, the momentum,” says Ross. “That was the cause for Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, [laundry truck from] Bayaud Enterprises, and the dental truck [Affinity Dental Hygiene] to say, we want to jump in on this too.”
Although there are a handful of similar programs scattered throughout the country, such as Lava Mae and Dignity on Wheels in California, as well Streetside Showers in Texas and Long Island Cares in New York, Living Well Showers is unique in that it’s run by a church. When it launched, it was also the only one of its kind in Colorado. This past September, after soliciting phone advice from Pastor Ross, nonprofit Showered With Love began serving the homeless population of Colorado Springs.
Across the board, the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive. “Sometimes people want to say, ‘That’s great, but not in my neighborhood,’” says Ross. “But thankfully, we haven’t met too much resistance.” Most encouraging perhaps, is the feedback from volunteers.
“When volunteers initially come in, it can be a little bit of a daunting task,” says Ross. “First, you’re working with the homeless population and for some reason, people tend to have fear when working with a population that they’re unfamiliar with. Second, part of volunteering is we clean out the showers after every single use. So people have this thing in their mind like, ‘Oh boy, this is going to be a little bit of work.’ What happens instead is people who haven’t had a shower for a month come in, they take a shower, and they walk out with the biggest look of relief and a smile on their face. That’s what encourages people to volunteer again.”
Today, the only thing keeping Living Well Showers from expanding even further throughout the Denver area is a lack of manpower. Says Ross, “For those who want to volunteer, we’re ready for you.”
Get involved: To give money, see where you can donate travel-sized toiletries, new underwear, undershirts, and socks, or coordinate a time to volunteer, visit livingwellshowers.org and coordinate via the “Contact Us” box.