Philly has a new community drugstore powered by radical hospitality and four wheels

Twice a week, the truck, painted in soothing pastel colors, travels through Philadelphia neighborhoods dispensing free toiletries — and a dose of kindness.

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Nathalie Cerin and Colleen Hendrick stand in and outside the hygiene truck

Nathalie Cerin, program manager of community hygiene (top) and Colleen Hendrick, community hygiene coordinator, demonstrate how the Community Hygiene Truck delivers items to people. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A traveling drugstore run on the power of radical hospitality is changing how Philadelphians get the supplies they need, one customer at a time.

Twice a week, the truck, painted in soothing pastel colors, travels through Philadelphia neighborhoods dispensing free toiletries — and a dose of kindness.

“I like to think of it as a food truck that gives out free hygiene products. So it’s like, ‘Cool. How are you today? Would you like some adult diapers?’” said Nathalie Cerin, program manager of community hygiene at Broad Street Ministry, the nonprofit that operates the truck and serves people experiencing homelessness throughout the city.

Whenever the truck is out in a neighborhood, guests — how the ministry refers to people they offer services to — can walk up, order a full package or choose specific items. Whatever they need is theirs. For free. Items include everything from deodorant, toothpaste, lotion, and hand sanitizer to pads, tampons, adult diapers, underwear and socks. All kinds of people come up to the truck: people who are unhoused, along with families and caretakers responsible for others.

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The truck is an extension of the ministry’s work, said chief executive officer Laure Biron.

“The idea was, let’s get community hygiene products out into the community where some of our guests are living, but may not reach us at [our location] 315 South Broad Street,” said Biron. When it comes to deep poverty, people often think about housing and forget about everyday necessities that we can simply pick up at CVS, Biron added.

Now, the ministry is able to directly serve residents in their neighborhoods and work with community groups. The collaborative spirit and mutual aid efforts are built into the truck itself, which is in partnership with Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital and Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic, along with Pheed Philly and Bloody Bitches, a nonprofit started by Temple graduates that works toward ending period poverty. The truck is funded by Trinity Mid-Atlantic, the Starbucks Foundation, and Life Science Cares.

A closeup of personal care items
The Community Hygiene Truck hands out personal cleaning and period products, socks, and other items to people in need. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The truck represents a new approach for the ministry. Cerin thinks it could help them reach people in a way that a traditional brick-and-mortar location can’t.

Almost 300 guests have been served since the truck revved up for the first time in September. In 2022, the truck will expand to include free telehealth services that will allow residents to connect with doctors, get referrals, and more.

“We can really have this opportunity to reimagine the way social services are delivered and find better ways to do them,” said Cerin.

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In addition to hygiene products, the vehicle features a handwashing station where anyone can scrub up. This element of the vehicle was inspired from early on in the pandemic, when the ministry added portable washing stations throughout the city so unhoused residents could have a place to keep clean.

Reimagining social services

Three months in, the truck operates along a regular route. On Mondays, it typically travels to West Philadelphia, serving residents nearby Mercy West Philadelphia on 54th Street. When it goes out on Fridays, the location varies. The team usually partners with a community group or small business. The truck has stopped in South Philadelphia to help an Indonesian restaurant, Hardena, hand out food. Another time, it’s headed to Kensington to assist Project SAFE with harm reduction work. Last week, they were at Asian Arts Initiative’s Community Fair.

Wherever they go, residents are happy to see the truck, which is wrapped in a colorful mural painted by local artist Marian Bailey.

Laure Biron (left), Colleen Hendrick, (center), and Nathalie Cerin stand outside the hygiene truck
Laure Biron, CEO of Broad Street Ministry (left), Colleen Hendrick, community hygiene coordinator (center), and Nathalie Cerin, program manager of community hygiene (right). (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Colleen Hendrick is the community hygiene coordinator and official truck driver. She has seen how much it means to people when the truck rolls into different neighborhoods.

“It’s a way for communities to help each other. It’s not charity. It’s a way just to look out for one another,” said Hendrick.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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