Once a month, volunteers with Archangel Raphael’s Mission park their silver trailer with two private bathrooms at Peter Francisco Park, just behind Newark Penn Station.
They hand out freshly laundered towels, welcoming anyone to make use of a resource that isn't easy to come by without stable housing: a shower.
“It's refreshing. It makes me feel better, you know? And it's some normalcy from everyday life,” Tanja Vega, 43, said before showering on Saturday, Aug. 27, when the trailer most recently visited the park.
Vega had been living on the streets for two weeks. The temperature had been around 90 degrees for days.
“I like to take a shower every day,” she added. “I would like to see this here, like every day, if it was possible.”
John El-Maraghy and his wife co-founded Archangel Raphael’s Mission, better known to the community it serves as ARM. They wanted to focus on improving health and hygiene services for people in need, and quickly realized offering showers could be a critical first step, he said.
“It’s a very rare service, a very coveted service,” El-Maraghy, who has been involved in outreach to homeless individuals since attending Rutgers University, said.
Mobile hygiene programs are a recent phenomenon, and only a handful of groups offer them in the state, he said.
“Up until recently, there's really just been a focus on meeting essential needs, which is very important, but prioritizing dignity as part of an essential need is a very new mentality,” El-Maraghy said.
ARM started offering showers in New Brunswick two years ago, and this summer expanded into Newark in partnership with a group that serves homeless individuals there, Humans for Humanity.
“I didn't think in the beginning that people were gonna be as responsive, but in talking to them after they took the shower, they were asking, saying, ‘This needs to happen more often,’” Gloria Mills, who founded Humans for Humanity, said.
She said hygiene hasn’t been a priority among groups that provide social services to people who have nowhere to live.
“It is radical to be able to say, not only do you need food, not only do you need clothing, you do need to bathe,” she said.
On the Saturday when Vega came by, El-Maraghy positioned the trailer adjacent to the triangle-shaped, one-acre Peter Francisco Park, a common location for organizations to donate hot meals or clothes to those in need. With no direct water access, El-Maraghy has to lug 100 gallons of water — weighing about 1,000 pounds — in his truck.
The water is then pumped into the two private shower stalls, which also have water heaters. Because ARM has no sewer access, El-Maraghy has to pay a company $300 to pump the wastewater at the end of the day. He could offer more showers, he said, if he had a water source or direct access to the sewage system. But the idea of mobile showers is still a novelty for the state — and for those in the park.
“The appliances is what I would say (are) top of the line,” said Ahkmed Muhammad, 35, who returned to the park in August for a shower and a shave after first coming in July. “New floors, mirrors, and new ceiling — customized everything, very modern.”
El-Maraghy said he wants to provide a “spa-like experience.” He hands every person a clean towel, new flip-flops, and supplies the bathrooms with high-quality body wash.
In a two-hour span, eight people decided to shower. When ARM visited the park in July, El-Maraghy said, 20 people signed up. The August visit was only the second time the trailer had come to the park, and El-Maraghy said his group is still trying to figure out what day is best. He wants it to be a reliable source in the community.
In New Brunswick, he said it “took four to eight weeks before we really saw a consistent battery of people coming through.” The group posts information about its plans on its website and on its Facebook page. It puts up fliers as well.
In Newark, some passersby looked skeptically at the trailer, skipping the offer of a shower but still taking a pair of Bombas socks and a hygiene care package. Others asked when the service would be, so they could make sure to be there next time.
Eli Livieratos, 37, said the shower “was everything you could possibly want.”
Livieratos said he hadn’t showered for three days and had nowhere to live until his paycheck arrived at the end of the month.
“It was just like showering at home,” he said.