“This is the heart of what the Y is all about, the foundation of why we are here,” says Eric Gorder, Branch Director of the Ferguson Family YMCA downtown. Gorder is speaking about the collaboration that has lasted over a year and was spurred by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

March 18, 2020 is the exact date that St. John’s Homeless Shelter began our pandemic response last year, opening a second shelter at Spring Lake Church downtown and operating both shelters 24/7. While the church had no showers, the YMCA down the block was quick to help meet this need. That’s why they were the community partner we could turn to when the need presented again. In late summer 2020, St. John’s staff got word that the second floor of the Bay Lake City Center downtown – right above Spring Lake Church – might be an option of a second shelter site for the 2020-21 shelter season, Nov. 1 – April 30. This site would accommodate social distancing while still not having to enact a capacity and turn people away in the winter months during a pandemic. While the space was large and had all we needed for the second shelter, what it lacked was shower facilities. That’s when staff reached out once again to the YMCA’s President/CEO Sean Elliott to ask for help. The answer was an enthusiastic yes.

Staff quickly started working with Eric Gorder to use shower facilities during the six-months of our shelter season. At that location, they are operating at 25% capacity, they didn’t offer group exercise and they had seen the membership drastically reduced. Hosting youth academies for virtual learners and the St. John’s guests took the place of the normal activities they might have at the YMCA. Gorder says, “We weren’t able to offer traditional services, but we didn’t stop doing all the things we do to support the community.”

St. John’s Shelter Manager Joe Wilmet says the collaboration with the YMCA was a huge relief. “Access to showers was one of the biggest barriers in moving into the Bay Lake City Center location. The Y being a partner helped make it possible for us to have the second site this season,” Wilmet says. “We had looked into other options, and this was the only viable option for guest showers.” Without the second shelter site this winter, over 61% of guests would have had to be turned away, something that didn’t feel like an options to Wilmet. he adds, ” This worked out as best as we could have hoped, thanks to Eric and the work of our Guest Interns.”

Each day, Monday through Friday, the shelter wake-up is at 4:45 a.m. and the first showers are at 5 a.m. When they are done at 7 a.m., the facility is sanitized. What is even more unique is that the shower program is staffed by St. John’s Guest Interns. Guest Interns work alongside shelter support staff and are leaders amongst their peers. Their wage is deposited into an account to be used to help with rent down payments and other things they need for self-sufficiency. The Guest Interns have choreographed a system for taking new groups to shower while transitioning the group who just showered. They work with YMCA staff and, as one Guest Intern says, “We leave it as we find it, as close to pristine as when we went in there.” And he adds, “There’s a simply luxury in being able to take a shower.”

The dignity of a shower is one most of us likely take for granted, but it can help someone experiencing homelessness be able to present themselves in the very best light, to feel clean and to be able to maintain jobs, friendships and more. Wilmet says, “We want our guests to be able to find employment and move forward in life and having access to showers on a regular basis is a critical requirement.”

Wilmet goes on to say, “I am incredibly grateful we had the partnership with the YMCA. This was a necessary part of operating our second site and meeting the need this winter. If the YMCA wouldn’t have stepped in to help, I don’t know if operating at the Bay Lake City Center would have been feasible. It is great to have community partners with this desire to serve our guests.”
When asked how this partnership fits into the mission of the YMCA, Gorder cites the Y’s commitment to social responsibility, “The Y is a community organization, and our mission and values have a focus on social responsibility and being there for people in need of our facilities. COVID switched our focus and allowed us to do this. The building was there, and we had a need. We do what we can to help.”