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People experiencing homelessness have a place to wash their hands while the city shuts down

A mural created by artist Nile Livingston was installed at 17th and Vine streets along with a public hand washing station meant for people who are living with housing instability. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A mural created by artist Nile Livingston was installed at 17th and Vine streets along with a public hand washing station meant for people who are living with housing instability. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Over the last week, portable hand-washing stations have been popping up around Philadelphia.

The Broad Street Ministry, a homeless services center in Center City, has rented nine portable stations, each with soap, running water, and paper towels, and installed them in places around town where homeless populations are known to congregate.

As the city has incrementally shut down over the last two weeks to tame the outbreak of COVID-19, Broad Street Ministry Executive Director Mike Dahl said people experiencing homelessness have become increasingly vulnerable.

“How are people supposed to do the most simple, basic thing everyone is being told to do: wash their hands? But the city is closing down,” Dahl said. “That was the idea that led to this project.”

The stations, each with their own internal tank of water operated by a foot pump, will be regularly replenished with water, soap and paper towels. They are temporary, meant to benefit homeless people until the pandemic dies down. Dahl said he will keep renting them for as long as the threat of the virus is prevalent.

He’s lucky to have them. Dahl and his staff had a hard time wrangling a contract and delivery. These hand-washing stations are in very high demand right now, and subject to price gouging.

The project is in partnership with Mural Arts Philadelphia, which coordinated four, 8-foot murals accompanying some of the stations. They make the stations more visible to those in need, and to make the general population more aware of city residents without a place to sleep.

Mural Arts and the Broad Street Ministry partnered to install murals with hand-washing stations around the city. Symone Salib created this one at 8th and South streets. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“So, here’s time when everyone is talking about sheltering at home, and we’re talking about the populations that have no home,” Dahl said. “People who don’t have the ability to go home and ride this out the way many of us do.”

The hand-washing stations were installed last week. The murals – painted on plywood sheets and zip-tied to secure fencing — were put in place on Tuesday.

Since they have appeared on the streets, including in front of the Broad Street Ministry on South Broad, Dahl testifies that the stations have been working.

“I can tell you anecdotally, since there are two right outside our front door, there is not 10 minutes go by that I don’t see them being used,” he said. “People were lining up before they got off the truck. They are needed.”

WHYY is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow at @brokeinphilly.

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