Leslie Alison Holman remembers the moment she decided to fight to not be homeless anymore.
It was June 6, 2013. Holman was locked up in South Carolina pending an open warrant. She had spent 33 years smoking crack, nearly seven years living in a cardboard box by Miami’s Rescue Mission on First Ave and 20th Street, and given up all contact with her three boys.
“I went on my knees. I didn’t want to be the same person,” said Holman, now 49. “ I surrendered.”
When she arrived back in Miami that July, Holman went to Camillus House for help. She credits their shower program, her initial introduction to the shelter, for helping her stay off the streets.
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Today, Holman is one of the volunteers that helps facilitate the Women’s Shower Program, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2014.
“I try to make it as pleasant as possible because I was out there sleeping on the sidewalk. I know how it feels to sleep outside,” said Holman. “Maybe I can encourage them to come on this side.”
The three-day-a-week program that runs from 7:30 to 10 a.m. offers free, hot showers to homeless women — many of whom are drug addicted, mentally ill and have been homeless for years. It’s part of the shelter’s initiative called the “Emotional, Social and Health Enhancement Program” (ESHE) that works address the needs of chronically homeless women.
The idea for the program stemmed from a lack of resources to help homeless women more than a decade ago.
“In Miami-Dade County, they had a lot of services for men and they didn’t have a specific place for women to take showers,” said Mary Love, one of the case managers at Camillus House.
Before the official shower program started, homeless women who attended the Day Center at Camillus House were given one day a week to bathe. Before ESHE and the shower program launched, the primary focus for the shelter’s various programs emphasized assisting men.
“We didn’t serve women, except at the food line,” said Kathy Garcia, former deputy clinical director at Camillus House. “It was not much of anything.”
Then in 2005, the Women’s Fund of Miami-Dade provided a $5,000 grant to make capital improvements to the shower program. Since then, the organization has consistently endowed the program to improve the facility and buy toiletry products and underwear. When the new location of Camillus House was built in 2012, six stalls, including one with handicapped access, were built with the help of the grant money.
Garcia called the effort one that works on “giving them [the women] back the respect and dignity they needed.”
For the past year and a half, Holman has arrived at 5:30 a.m. in a purple volunteer T-shirt every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to work the shower program shift. She checks that each bathroom stall is clean and has toilet paper, pulls out clean towels, and makes sure there’s enough toothpaste to go around.
“I get there early to help set up,” said Holman. “They helped me, so I help back. I just want to be a better person.”
In the early morning, Holman works side-by-side with other volunteers warmly greeting homeless women and walking the through the specifics of the program.
Each woman is given 15 minutes to look through clean, donated clothes that are displayed on metal department store racks to exchange for their dirty clothes. Shoes, underwear and bras can also be swapped.
“We don’t want to give them something that they don’t want to wear,” said Fred Mims, director of Direct Care Ministry at Camillus House. “We want them to feel comfortable in the skin that they’re in.”
After the exchange, the ladies are handed a white towel and a basic hygiene packing with shampoo, conditioner, a razor, toothpaste and toothbrush for their 20 minute shower.
“We’ve come up with some creative ways to bring people off the street, engage them, and lure them into a more stable environment,” said Mims. “We try to make it as hospitable as possible.”
For Edith Hudson, an eight-year shower program volunteer and member of Camillus House board, the program works as an entry point to talk with the women. Approximately 35 to 60 women use the showers each time they open.
“The greatest triumph for me has been when after being kind to them [and] helping them out, they start talking to you,” said Hudson. “Everything comes together.”
Holman remembers the warmth she felt from the program, particularly from Mary Love, who previously ran the program and was also a friend from the streets. It later served as encouragement to get sober and stop living in a cardboard box.
By the end of 2013, Holman was transferred into Camillus House’s housing program. They later helped her find and rent her own apartment. She renewed her rental agreement last year.
“I went from a cardboard box to a rooftop all in the same year,” said Holman. “I don’t really know how to thank these people. I would do anything for them because they helped me.”