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“Bathroom ministry” for the homeless

(WCC) — Whether people have access to a safe and clean toilet has wide-reaching consequences for their dignity, health, access to education, and gender equality. Churches around the world are therefore acting as messengers, implementers, advocators, and guardians to promote better sanitation and hygiene. There are many practical and encouraging examples. One is the Episcopal Church of Saints Andrew & Matthew (SsAM) in Wilmington (Delaware) in the USA, which has a “community bathroom” that people from the homeless community can use.

The “community bathroom” at the Episcopal Church of Saints Andrew & Matthew (SsAM) is open for anybody in need. Photo: Diane-Louise Casson

Already in the mid 1990s the former St Andrew’s Church decided to make available a bathroom, meaning a toilet with handwashing facilities, to be used not only by church visitors but for anybody from the community. “It was a part of the parish’s ministry to the homeless,” said Rev. Canon Lloyd S. Casson, rector emeritus of SsAM.

It remains so until today. Before the COVID pandemic, the community bathroom could be used by anybody in need during the hours when the parish office was open, which generally meant it was accessible 9am to 5pm on Monday to Friday, Saturdays if there were special events, and on Sundays from 8am to 1pm. There was also filtered ice water available on a counter near the office. In warm weather, this would be refilled 10+ times a day.

Diane-Louise Casson is currently church administrator at SsAM. “It would be great if we could open the bathroom at all hours. Basic needs aren’t restricted to office hours, obviously,” she says. Unfortunately, even before COVID, that wasn’t possible. “For security reasons we can’t leave the parish building open when there’s no staff present, and also the bathroom needs to be cleaned regularly,” D-L Casson explains.

Maintaining the community bathroom comes with challenges, like ensuring it is cleaned several times a day. Sometimes supplies go missing, people taking the extra rolls of toilet paper or paper towel refills. Not all visitors understand that the bathroom is “for the basics only” and try to use the space to do a full body wash.

The bathroom is located just outside the main office, so parish staff and volunteers can keep an eye on how the bathroom is being used. “However, the primary eyes and ears are the regular users from the homeless community itself,” stresses D-L Casson. They helped with spreading the word about keeping the space clean, not taking supplies and so on. 

The Episcopal Church of Saints Andrew and Matthew (SsAM) seeks to be a dynamic, spiritual center that is active in the pursuit of peace and justice in the community and a place where all God’s people are honored. Photo: SsAM

Last year, the COVID pandemic made the public use of the community bathroom impossible. “Because of COVID, the building is always locked now. We have strict mask protocols requiring that I go to the door when someone rings the bell,” said D-L Casson. The parish worked with the city to come up with a temporary solution ensuring access to a toilet for the homeless. “In the early days of COVID, we allowed the city to place a portable toilet and hand washing station in our adjacent parking lot. It was there for use during the many months of total lockdown.”

More recently, the Friendship House Empowerment Center which supports people facing homelessness is back in their regular space in the building’s basement and people can use their bathrooms. “Previously, our door was unlocked during office hours and folks just came and went. We look forward to that being the case again,” added D-L Casson.

by The World Council of Churches