Shower Truck

Charity: It feels so good it hurts

This week we have another heart-warming story from our St. Louis Community. A man named Jake Austin runs a special service, a Shower the People truck, that offers free showers and other hygiene services to homeless people in the St. Louis area. We’re often reminded of how the homeless and other poor people need food, and what an excellent job so many of the food pantries do. We recognize that if a person has shelter, they have overcome some of the barriers to homelessness, but far from all.

There are still people who are literally living on the streets and what they face is incomprehensible, especially in the wealthiest country in the world. To eat and to find clothing, some actually engage in dumpster diving. But what then?

That’s where Austin and his cohorts come in. In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story on “Shower the People,” Austin said, “Hot water and soap are wildly underrated in the world. You don’t realize what it means to you until you don’t have it.”

That resonated with Austin, who bought a truck he found on Craigslist for $5,000 and started Shower to the People.

Tangibly, the truck is equipped with two shower stalls and moves to different neighborhoods. Intangibly, it’s equipped with a ray of hope for many of the region’s homeless.

When it began operations a year ago, it offered showers two days a week. Now it’s four, with plans for more growth, Austin said. “We don’t have clients, we have friends and neighbors, and I’m excited about our growth.”

This is another “feel good” story for St. Louis. Fortunately, we’re fed a steady diet of them because we have Channel 5 (NBC affiliate) “on our side” [that’s their slogan] and Channel 4 (CBS affiliate) “never stops watching out for you” [their slogan]. With those two agents as our allies, we should have an army of charitable people and organizations that ensure that we never have people in our community who are hungry, homeless, or so left out in the cold that they have not showered in two months.

It was not a television station that broke the story of the “Shower the People” to us. It was St. Louis’ flagship daily newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And they certainly care about us. No words could provide a greater call to action than Joseph Pulitzer’s platform, written on April 10, 1907.

I know that my retirement will make no difference in its cardinal principles, that it will always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.

Joseph Pulitzer clearly got it. He talks about broad societal change to ensure that justice takes the lead over charity. He sees the well-being of citizens as a major concern of government and that responsible government must provide a safety net to protect all in need.

Perhaps it was inevitable as time went on the Post-Dispatch would have to trim its sails a bit to appeal to readers who were not nearly as progressive in thought or action as Pulitzer. At the time that he wrote his platform, there were nearly a dozen daily newspapers in St. Louis, so the Post-Dispatch could securely cater to the progressive niche.

As the Post worked to broaden its appeal, it had to seek out advertisers that were not comfortable with words like “never lack sympathy with the poor” or “always remain devoted to the public welfare.”

The TV stations crow about the great service they do for our community and the newspaper does indeed find time to provide some in-depth coverage to real acts of charity. But what is lost is how far we are from the words of Pulitzer’s platform.

A just society with a responsible government would never have need for a shower truck, much less homeless shelters or food banks. The society would recognize what is in Article I of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience3 and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

It is appropriate that we now cheer for Jake Austin and others who bring us the “Shower the People” truck. It is also appropriate that we cry that we are as far from justice as we are in 2017. No amount of “being on the side” of our charities will make up for a commitment to a solid government social and economic safety net. Whenever we cheer for the charity, let’s remember the omission of justice. And whenever the television station or newspaper tells us of the charity, let them remind us of the injustice that gave cause to the charity.