"When the U.S. offers aid to third-world countries, the first things we bring are clean water and tools for basic hygiene," says Ronni Gilboa, program manager for the Urban Rest Stop. "Meanwhile, here in the U.S., you need a home, or at least a gym membership, to guarantee such necessities. We're such a rich country, but our distribution policy sucks. How do you level the playing field?"
For the Urban Rest Stop, the answer is obvious: Offer fully stocked bathrooms, showers, and laundry facilities to any and all homeless and low-income citizens who need them, free of charge, seven days a week. Founded in March 2000 as a project of the Low Income Housing Institute, the Urban Rest Stop has been doing just that for over seven years, providing an oasis of civilization to more than 20,000 individuals, and earning the coveted attention of Noise for the Needy, the Seattle-based nonprofit organization that produces a week-long music festival to benefit a different do-gooding local organization each year.
The selection of Urban Rest Stop as Noise for the Needy's 2008 recipient was "a no-brainer," says Rich Green, cofounder of NFTN and purchaser of this one-page story in this year's Strangercrombie auction. Green says the proposal was "met with immediate approval" by the Noise for the Needy board, every member of which was already familiar with Urban Rest Stop.
For those of you who aren't, here are the basics: The Urban Rest Stop is located at 1924 Ninth Avenue, just around the corner from the Greyhound bus station, in the nameless neighborhood hovering between downtown, South Lake Union, and Capitol Hill. Hours of operation are 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on weekdays, and 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on weekends. Among the available amenities: five individual shower rooms (each of which is rigged with a shower, sink, and toilet, and one of which is accessible to folks with disabilities); a full-size laundry room packed floor-to-ceiling with washers and dryers (free, of course, with complimentary laundry soap provided); a station stocked with body soap and shampoo, shaving cream and razors, toothbrushes and toothpaste (all complimentary); and, last but not least, a rack of clean coveralls for clients to don while doing their laundry.
"Often our clients are washing the only clothes they have," says Gilboa, a 20-year nonprofit veteran who last year oversaw the Rest Stop's expansion to almost twice its original size—a move that doubled the washer-dryer capacity, doubled the space of the laundry's waiting room, and, most importantly to Gilboa, provided room for coed facilities. "When we first opened, services were only available to men," Gilboa tells me. "In Seattle, services are typically age and sex segregated, but with the addition of our facilities for women, we've become the only hygiene facility in Seattle that families can use together."
About those families: A majority of the Urban Rest Stop's clients are the working poor, with a full 60 percent of the clientele composed of people with jobs but no homes. "There's this bogus theory that if people get hungry and dirty enough, they'll get a job," says Gilboa. "But how can you get a job if you're not clean?" The needs of the employed and those seeking employment are also behind the Rest Stop's extended weekday hours, which span from early morning to mid-evening, guaranteeing regular access to laundry and personal hygiene for those folks either working or seeking jobs. "If we want people clean and healthy, if we want a healthy community, we need to do this," says Gilboa of the Rest Stop's commitment to regular, open, and free public-hygiene services. "It's in our own self-interest."
To gain access to the Urban Rest Stop, all one needs to do is show up. Clients fill out forms asking for their names, birth dates, and a small handful of other facts (sample question: "Where did you sleep last night?"), but the overarching goal of Urban Rest Stop is maximum accessibility, and the facts on the forms aren't double-checked against ID. "Lots of people sign in under names that probably aren't their own," says Gilboa. "We've had Bill Gates, Queen Christina, Frank Zappa... It's fine to be Frank Zappa; all we ask is that you stay Frank Zappa, to help us keep our records straight." (A less-whimsical fact glommed from Rest Stop questionnaires: 25 percent of clients are military veterans.) Appointments to use laundry services are made by phone on a daily basis—the sign-up list opens at 5:30 a.m. and typically fills up in an hour—while shower appointments are made in person each day.
In the sprit of maximum accessibility, the sole disqualifier for Urban Rest Stop's services is behavior. "The basic ground rule: Don't be a jerk," says Gilboa. "No violence, no threats, no buying or selling. If someone shows up intoxicated, we send 'em away till they sober up. Urban Rest Stop is not safe for drunks—hot water and intoxicated people don't mix. Beyond that, everybody who needs us is welcome—regardless of age, race, gender, or physical ability." Unlike a number of local organizations helping the homeless, Urban Rest Stop is unaffiliated with any church or agenda beyond personal hygiene. "We're not pushing anything," says Gilboa. "You don't have to pray before you pee."
When Gilboa gives me a tour, I note the Rest Stop's facilities are cleaner than most gyms', and Gilboa confirms the place is kept rigorously clean. "A lot of our clients aren't getting enough sleep, aren't getting enough to eat, are totally stressed out, all of which adds up to compromised immune systems," says Gilboa. "This place only works if it's clean." The ongoing health concerns of clients is the driving force behind the Rest Stop's next move: a collaboration with Harborview, whose nurses are expected to begin onsite health care and preventive medicine at Urban Rest Stop by late February, offering services from first aid to prenatal care.
Now perhaps you're wondering, how can I help? Lucky for you, there are a thousand painless ways to help Urban Rest Stop keep on keeping on. First and foremost, there's this year's Noise for the Needy festival, which will be lighting up clubs around town the second week in June with an array of beloved local and national acts (full list of this year's acts is coming soon); just by attending, you'll be putting money toward the Rest Stop's mission of free and easy cleanliness for all. Beyond that, the Rest Stop is always hungry for donated books and magazines ("There's a lot of waiting-around time with laundry and showers," says Gilboa), and big boxes of Costco laundry soap are perennially welcome. On an artsier tip, Urban Rest Stop would love to borrow the services of a kindhearted videographer, to help spruce up the URS information video—interested videographers can reach the Rest Stop's offices at 332-0113.