By KATIE EUBANKS
Jackson organization empowers people experiencing homelessness
Lying in the shade, a young man named DJ spreads his Bible on top of his face and reaches his arms up to the sky. He doesn’t take medication anymore, because it messed him up as a kid — scripture is his covering now. He comes here once or twice a week and, when he’s not reading his Bible, he’s praying.
Jackie doesn’t keep still long enough to pray. Wearing a T-shirt, jeans and a red ballcap, plus a bandanna around his neck, he dumps water out of a makeshift cooler; transports clothing, hygiene items and food into and out of the building behind him; and cracks a running joke: “The preacher needs a Mercedes!” The “preacher” is himself; he cheekily begs donations.
Hood sits on the curb and chats with the girl next to him. He has a bit of scruff on his face, and keeps his silvery hair not long, but not short either. When asked to be in a photo, he immediately runs his fingers through that hair with a motion so natural and easy, it’ll make you do a double take.
DJ, Jackie and Hood are three of the dozens of people who show up at 836 South Commerce Street in Jackson on Tuesdays* and Fridays. They eat lunch, listen to music — and they take turns showering in the back of a converted food truck. Many wouldn’t be able to shower otherwise.
Local nonprofit Shower Power owns the truck, plus the building that houses donated items. Six months ago, the organization started offering free showers and much more for people experiencing homelessness.
*Shower Power’s Tuesday service was temporarily added during the COVID-19 pandemic, and will continue until other local facilities with showers reopen. The Friday service will continue.
‘Bird baths’ and box trucks
In the past six months, seven Shower Power friends have gotten off the streets, and Jackie and others have gone from just receiving help to facilitating it as well. (The organization pays Jackie a few dollars a day.) Restaurants have donated lunches; individuals have donated whole rooms full of clothing. Attendance at Shower Power has gone from zero to about 60 per day, or 120 per week.
“It has turned into a ministry, to be honest — a full-blown ministry,” says founder Teresa Renkenberger, a local realtor who saw the need after befriending a homeless man named Benny on Lakeland Drive.
“Through almost a year’s worth of conversations, one day I asked him, ‘Where do you shower?’ It had never even occurred to me,” Teresa says.
“He pointed across the street, and he said, ‘In that bathroom in the service station.’
“I said, ‘How do you do that?’ He said, ‘It’s a bird bath.’ I said, ‘How long has it been since you’ve had a real shower?’ And he told me,
She knew she had to do something.
“I have never really thought about my purpose in life. But I’ve always had it in me to serve underprivileged people, because me and my momma were almost homeless,” she says. “If it hadn’t been for people letting us stay with them at a certain time in my life, we would’ve been sleeping in our car. I was very poor and got made fun of.”
After her conversation with Benny, Teresa called her husband and said, “We’ve got to do something about this.”
“We didn’t come to any conclusion,” she recalls. “But when I was walking up my doorsteps to my house, it flew into my mind — a camper. If they can put showers in campers and RVs, they can put them in a box truck. I called my husband right back, and he said, ‘Go for it.’ I don’t think he thought I would do it.”
She did it. She found an old food truck on Craigslist, and she and her husband bought it.
Getting it refurbished took a year.
In the meantime, the man converting the truck told Teresa about a building in downtown Jackson that was for sale. She bought the building, so Shower Power had a place of its own to park the truck and offer showers.
Thanks to donors, the building at 836 South Commerce is now full of clothing, snacks, backpacks and hygiene items. So anytime someone showers at Shower Power, they can walk away in a clean outfit, including socks and underwear, and take a bag of other amenities that nobody wants to live without.
“Say this truck had gotten ready six months earlier — we could not have offered all the things we offer,” Teresa says.
A block party and a catwalk
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think Shower Power was just a block party. The truck is an old food truck, after all, and still looks like one at first glance. One man sits on the steps of the building and plays music through a boombox. His dream is to be a DJ in the Bahamas. Volunteers and friends linger and talk after lunch.
Most of the people who make use of Shower Power’s services are men, and most are mentally ill. You can tell some are. But this (female) writer felt perfectly safe.
Then you notice the haircuts. A man standing next to the shower truck provides cuts, trims and shaves as men sit on the curb and wait their turn. Hood only wants a shave, and for something to be done about his “Dr. Seuss eyebrows,” he says. No need to cut the hair on his head — “I’m proud of that.”
In the building, a man who looks like he stepped right out of the Grove at an Ole Miss game says, “Jarred, where are men’s shirts?” (The Ole Miss fan’s wife says he fell in love with Shower Power about a month ago, so they’ve been coming back to help out.)
“Third door,” Jarred replies. Jarred is a student at Mississippi College, a friend of Teresa’s daughter, and a Shower Power board member. He puts a “Miss” or “Mister” in front of your name when he meets you. He’s the resident “stylist,” choosing new outfits for clientele from among the donated clothes, and he takes a lot of pictures of the goings-on.
Jarred also stands 6’6” and has broken up a few scuffles at Shower Power. But Jackson police patrol the area — and now that attendees trust the ministry, they’ve got the volunteers’ backs.
For his part, Jarred says, “I get to reassure (people experiencing homelessness) that they’re loved and that they’re worthy, and that their story’s not over, and we don’t know what it is, but God knows what it is.”
Some friends come to socialize rather than shower. Some might shower, but won’t talk at all. Some will pray with Jarred or others. Some will share their testimony. Some just want the shower and the food.
Jarred admits that showering in the back of a truck could sound sketchy. “But none of them were really too standoffish (when we started). I walked them back and showed them the shower, where the shampoo and conditioner were, and said you’ll get a pack of hygiene, you’ll get a towel.” And that was that.
One day, Jarred decided to clean out his closet and donate some clothes. Shower Power posted a picture on social media. “And then people just started donating clothes and (more) clothes,” he says.
One of his favorite moments happened with one of Shower Power’s few female friends, who hadn’t showered in five months.
“We don’t give people a time limit in the shower. A lot of people told us that we should. But I just don’t feel like that’s right. So she went in there and it took her 30 minutes to clean her hair. And when she got out of the shower, she felt so good and was so happy. It was like she had gained her dignity and her self-worth and her pride and everything back in one shower,” he says.
“And as soon as she got out, I was like, ‘GIRL, you looking GOOD!’ She said, ‘Really?’ I said yes. She said, ‘Do you think I could be a model one day?’ I said, ‘Girl we don’t have to wait till one day.’ So we started walking up and down the street (like it was a catwalk).
“She was just crying because she said she had not felt like she mattered. She felt like she was a person again,” he says. “It was beautiful. She was cracking me up walking up and down that street.”
‘This is my purpose in life’
As of Teresa’s May 11 interview, Shower Power had free lunches planned out through the first of June thanks to local restaurants and churches. And, the ministry has grown to the point where a second truck will be needed soon, Jarred says. The hope is that this effort eventually reaches beyond metro Jackson.
“It’s weird how things hit you,” Teresa says. “I was walking the other day and it hit me: ‘This is my purpose in life. God, thank You so much.’”
She and Jarred reached out to a former Shower Power attendee who now has a home, but MCL was unable to connect with him in time for an interview. Truth be told, every person impacted by Shower Power should get his or her own article, whether they’re still on the streets or not. Each of them has a story.
Jackie spoke for a lot of his friends — no joking around this time — when he found out an article would be published:
“Just let them know, people are out here for all kinds of reasons. There’s mental illness (behind a lot of homelessness). It’s not just drugs,” he said.
Then he walked away and kept working.