Hollywood is synonymous with glamour — a glitzy town where an aspiring actor’s dreams can come true. But you’ll find more than pink terrazzo stars on the city’s Walk of Fame. It’s also home to some of the 60,000 Los Angelenos who live on the streets or in their cars. They lack access to basic sanitation — toilets and showers — and even clean water. In a city where the sun beats down relentlessly, hygiene is a challenge, especially with COVID-19 closing businesses and public spaces like libraries where those without homes could normally find bathrooms.
The Shower of Hope is one organization providing relief to these unhoused individuals and families. It’s set up seven showers in the parking lot of Hollywood’s Adventist Church (now closed for indoor worship due to the coronavirus) — one of 25 locations where The Shower of Hope operates.
Tuesday through Friday, homeless people arrive — often carrying their every possession in a backpack slung over a shoulder — to take showers. “It’s a very interesting system,” says John Schoer of Adventist Health. “It’s kind of like a spa. During the day, you won’t see a long line, but it is virtually full every 10 minutes.”
“Sixty to 70% of the people utilizing the showers are unhoused, living in their cars, but still working,” says John. “They need to be presentable and respectable for work, but they don’t have homes.” People come and go quietly. “A lot of them are concerned about letting their employers know they live in their cars,” says John. “They are afraid of being fired.”
For years, the church provided two showers for homeless community members through its outreach ministry. But when COVID-19 hit Hollywood, Adventist Health, Kohler, and World Vision formed a partnership to help. “We came together to make this happen,” says John. Adventist Health reached out to The Shower of Hope to bring the specially-designed trailer to Los Angeles. World Vision supplies the products needed to keep the program running, and the church provides space for the showers. Thirty-year-old Andrew Froemming oversees the project. “Andrew is a one-man show,” says John. Andrew is the administrative director for the church — a title that doesn’t come close to capturing his outreach to the city’s homeless community.
Partnering to meet increased need
When Andrew moved to Los Angeles from Minnesota eight years ago, he was stunned to see how many people live on the streets. He began to form relationships with these neighbors. “We get to know them on a first name basis,” says Andrew. “It becomes like a family.” He calls every person who books an appointment a guest, because that’s what they are.
“When COVID-19 hit Los Angeles, the demand for showers went up exponentially,” Andrew says. “Often low-income people have an inexpensive gym membership so they can shower. But people weren’t allowed into gyms or buildings anymore.” The church’s two showers were inadequate.
Eric Birky grew up in Wisconsin, then the family moved to Phoenix when his parents sold their farm. When they died, he moved to Los Angeles with a friend. “I had no idea he would end up in a nursing home,” Eric says. “I then had no place to be.” Eric had been living on the streets for three years when he learned about the Hollywood Adventist Church and started attending their program for homeless people, called A Million Drops.
Now Eric volunteers to help check in homeless people in need of showers. “Even though I am homeless, I can give back,” he says. But he is also a guest. Nearly 59, Eric has arthritis — his right knee is now bone-on-bone, and he desperately needs surgery. “It’s tough getting old,” he chuckles. But as a homeless person, surgery is but a dream.
Eric is grateful for the showers. “The showers are actually beautiful. They are luxurious. The music is piped in. It feels very relaxing. I could stay there forever,” he says.
He’s grateful not only for himself but for the other 60,000 homeless people in Los Angeles: “If these showers weren’t here, it would be very rough for people,” he says. “I walk past certain areas where I see people with ragged clothes. You can see they’re dirty — not because they want to be, but because of their circumstances.”
World Vision supplies the necessities to keep the program running. Before World Vision became involved, donations came from volunteers at the church. But with a congregation of only 150 members, those donations couldn’t meet the need. Inside the church, stacked boxes of socks, hand sanitizer, deodorant, and shampoo have just arrived. “We go through hundreds of bottles every week,” says Andrew.
Staying strong despite uncertain future
Andrew himself may soon face homelessness. The church funds his salary through operating the building as a community center. But COVID-19 put a stop to that. “This month, our big rental went away,” he says. “That covered my salary. I still don’t know if they can cover my salary, but we don’t want to see the showers go away.” The only other place with public showers is the YMCA on the other side of Hollywood, but more people shower at the Adventist church, he says. Last year his neighbor, a woman in the film industry, became homeless when she lost her job and was evicted from her apartment. “Now I am in the same position,” he says. But Andrew is optimistic—he’s seen the community come through tough times before.
Meanwhile, the work continues. “We started with 140 a week,” Andrew says. “One week almost 200 people came through.” Last month, The Shower of Hope provided 775 showers for its guests. “We are only limited by capacity,” he says. Limited by capacity, but certainly not by love. And that’s better than getting a star on the Walk of Fame.