Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) speaks with Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) before a council session in January.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) speaks with Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) before a council session in January. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he supports a proposal by Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) to have the City Council purchase a shower trailer that would serve San Antonio’s homeless population.

However, Nirenberg would like to put the brakes on Treviño’s desire to fast-track the proposal. Nirenberg said there are details that must be worked out through proper Council procedures and City regulations in order to ensure the long-term viability of the mobile shower unit.

Treviño first proposed the idea and requested funding for the shower trailer during the budgeting process last year, but it was passed over in favor of other priorities. Since then, he has asked his fellow council members to chip in on the purchase by using money from each of their City Council Project Fund (CCPF) accounts.

Treviño originally asked for $7,000 from the discretionary accounts of each district but is now asking for $5,275 because he found a less expensive shower trailer. This week he followed up with an outline of an operational framework for its use, but the proposal lacked specific details related to operation, maintenance, and staffing,

Nirenberg credited Treviño with a creative idea to help the homeless with hygiene and health. He said Council will need to determine what department of city government will be responsible for the trailer, who will operate it, what it will cost in terms of annual operations and maintenance, and how it will be funded beyond the initial purchase. He said Council could discuss all that at a meeting next month when it is already scheduled to discuss homelessness in San Antonio.

“This is a laudable goal, but we have to make sure we have a plan in place to make it feasible and sustainable into the future,” Nirenberg said.

Treviño’s district features the largest number of homeless in the City, according to the 2018 Point-In-Time Count, an annual count of homeless people without shelter done on a single night each January. District 2 and District 5, both of which border District 1 have the next two highest homeless counts in San Antonio.

If Council funds and approves the shower idea, it would be a first-of-its-kind council-owned and -operated program, Treviño said. Nirenberg said that is also something the Council needs to discuss and analyze.

Treviño indicated in a letter to his fellow council members that he believes the shower could be operated full-time through partnerships with organizations that are already working with the homeless in each district, adding the City’s Department of Human Services (DHS) could help identify those groups and organizations.

Treviño would prefer to purchase the shower and get it up and running as soon as possible and figure out the operational details and procedures over time through experience.

“City and Council Aide staffs will be able to make operational adjustments as the unit is activated,” Treviño wrote at the end of his letter. “We will learn about how best to utilize this asset over time as it is actually used in the community.”

Treviño said as of Thursday afternoon he had heard from seven council members who pledged support for the idea.

Council is required to vote on any expenditure of $10,000 or more, but if it purchases the trailer with monies from the CCPF accounts, it would be a simple procedural vote, Treviño said. That would likely happen at either a February or March council meeting if the other details could be worked out.

“The good news is it looks like we have the support we need, and I hope to get more,” Treviño said. “Obviously, I would like the entire council to be supportive. The whole idea of the shower is to help the entire city, and the shower will be shared among all the council districts. That’s what I’m committed to.

“…Bottom line, we are a compassionate city, and this is the gesture of a compassionate council.”

Treviño is up for reelection in May, which is likely one reason for his urgency to get the showers purchased and operating. With six people having filed paperwork to challenge for his seat, winning another term is no sure thing, and it’s possible future councils won’t be as friendly to the idea.

A BCFS mobile shower unit was on loan to the city of McAllen, TX for migrant relief efforts.
The City of McAllen borrowed a mobile shower unit for migrant relief efforts. Credit: Courtesy / Roberto Treviño

Justin Holley is among those running for Treviño’s District 1 seat. Holley said in a recent Facebook post he is against spending public money on a mobile shower trailer and suggested there are better ways to help the homeless in San Antonio.

“There are so many layers to the homelessness challenge, but this kind of money is better spent on mental health care rather than duplication of services already offered in many facilities,” Holley wrote in his post.

Treviño said a young woman, who spent part of her life homeless in San Antonio, recently approached him when she heard about his push for a mobile shower and said during her time on the streets, her biggest challenge was hygiene.

“A lack of hygiene leads to health issues and they can’t afford health care,” Treviño said. “Our residents deserve better than that.”

While Treviño could not point to a similar endeavor Council is responsible for managing, each council member oversees a budget and maintains and operates a field office. Treviño’s field office happens to be in an old fire station, where he said the shower could be parked at times if needed.

The estimated cost of the trailer with three showerheads and ADA accessibility is $58,000, according to research done by the DHS. The trailer also would need to be towed by a pickup truck. DHS estimated the cost of a new pickup at $36,000 and annual operating costs at $63,000 based on providing 36 showers per day.

Treviño said he believes those costs are excessive and that the City doesn’t need to purchase a new pickup to tow the showers. With contributions from the business community and partnerships and volunteers who will help operate the shower, the operating costs could be lower, he said.

The Rev. Gavin Rogers, who works with the homeless at Travis Park United Methodist Church downtown, said a mobile shower unit would make a big difference in the lives of homeless people.

“Everybody thinks there is a catch-all solution,” said Rogers, who co-authored the letter sent to council members this week. “This is just one solution to better the lives for the common good of people. The end game is, ‘Will a shower do good?’ Yes. We start there and then say how do we get it done as a city?

“When people can stay clean, they don’t have foot rot, they don’t get sick, they don’t have nasty infections and have to go to our dermatology clinic. When they’re clean, they’re less likely to go places where they need services.”

After studying the idea and similar efforts by other cities, DHS suggested renting a mobile shower and implementing a pilot program to analyze how often it is used over six months. DHS estimated the cost of the pilot program at $43,000.

After reviewing similar programs in north suburban Dallas/Fort Worth, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Diego, DHS found such programs are run by nonprofit organizations and not municipalities, though several cities provided funding. It also found the shower programs usually were available three to five days per week and rotated among partner sites, generally churches.

Treviño would like the truck to be used daily, spending at least one month in each City Council district. The showers could also could be used for disaster relief efforts and other emergencies.

Treviño said the City often busts up homeless encampments when they form in different spots around town. He understands why that needs to happen but said the City should be more compassionate in dealing with homelessness.

“If we’re simply kicking people out and not giving them a hand up and an opportunity, then I think we’re only going halfway through the effort,” Treviño said. “We should be providing some of the folks who are in those places to have a hand up, a warm meal, a shower, a haircut, and possibly a connection back to Haven for Hope and other services that can provide a way back into a normal life.”

Kyle Ringo is a freelance journalist based in San Antonio. He has covered business, college athletics, the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball for numerous publications and websites.