democratizing hygiene

Local organization creates handwashing stations for Houston's homeless communities

A local church is deploying handwashing stations across town. Photo by Nijalon Dunn

When the coronavirus forced the closure of restaurants, stores, and community centers, it disproportionally affected the health of a population of people: The homeless.

Homeless individuals are acutely vulnerable amid the public health and hygiene concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic, says Houstonian Nijalon Dunn. These communities of people have been left without immediate access to soap and clean water, especially with the closure of local businesses whose restrooms sometimes served as individuals' only sources of clean water.

"[Local businesses are] where people were able to use the restroom, wash their hands and have access to soap and water," Dunn says. "Take public restrooms away, now you have an increase in public urination and people using the restroom outside. Not only that, but people aren't washing their hands because of a lack of education and awareness about social distancing and hygiene practices."

Observing this effect of the virus, a group of Houstonians pulled together their skills and resources to provide handwashing stations across the city for Houston's homeless population.

Rise Houston Church, a local organization servicing inner-city Houston, is behind the initiative. Eager to help the community during the coronavirus pandemic, Rise Houston's pastor Stan DePue proposed the idea of building and distributing handwashing stations that would provide clean water and soap to homeless communities.

Dunn paired used his photography and filmmaking skills for a great cause when partnering with Rise Houston: Clean Hands. Dunn, a member of Rise Houston and founder of Black Visa Creative, a Houston company specializing in creative and commercial portraits that help small businesses tell their stories, knew that he could elevate DePue's project's reach and awareness through photojournalism.

"For us to have the impact and raise the support we needed, I knew that we needed to be documenting this [project]. So [Stan] and I partnered," Dunn says.

The idea evolved into an initiative with 10 sinks deployed across the city of Houston. According to Rise Houston's website, the sinks cost $300 to install. The church is looking for support in funding and maintaining the sinks — more information on giving back is available online.

DePue and his congregation are running the project's operation and physically constructing the sinks, and Dunn overseeing the project's documentation and awareness.

"We've been working with boots on the ground, creating partnerships so that we have strategic locations [for sinks] and know that they'll serve the best purpose in the areas where we place them," Dunn says.

After sink locations were identified across Houston, Rise Houston: Clean Hands volunteers delivered and set up the sinks on-site, each complete with a seven-gallon water tank, a water dispenser foot pump, soap and paper towel dispensers, trash bags, and signs that encourage the six-feet-apart social distancing rule.

"In order to stop the spread of coronavirus and flatten the curve, we needed to bring innovation to the way we serve our homeless brothers and sisters during this time," Dunn says.

A striking observation from Dunn's experience with this project, and the individuals he has worked and conversed with, has been how grateful people have been to learn about and be exposed to hygienic resources and practices, Dunn says.

"One of the greatest assets of the storyteller is knowing when to put the camera down. Some of the places we go to are some of the most vulnerable places in the city," Dunn says. "When we go into these homeless camps, I need to know when to put the camera down and live and exist with the person I talk to."

Through these interpersonal encounters, the teamwork of Rise Houston: Clean Hands volunteers and Dunn's innovative approach to communicating about this issue, the initiative has been able to sustain maintenance of the sinks and further spread hygienic awareness to Houstonians.

Letting hygiene sink in

Photo by Nijalon Dunn

Rise Houston: Clean Hands has deployed 10 outdoor sinks across Houston.

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Building Houston

 
 

Activate is planting its roots in Houston with a plan to have its first set of fellows next year. Photo via Getty Images

An organization that directs support to scientists developing impactful technology has decided on Houston for its fifth program.

Activate was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

"Our mission is to empower scientists to reinvent the world by bringing their research to market," Aimee Rose, executive managing director of Activate, tells InnovationMap. "There's so much technical talent that we educate in this country every year and so many amazing inventions that happen, that combining the two, which is the sort of inventor/entrepreneur, and giving them the support mechanisms they need to get on their feet and be successful, has the potential to unlock an incredible amount of value for the country, for the environment, and to address other social problems."

This year, Activate is planting seeds in Houston to grow a presence locally and have its first set of fellows in 2024. While Activate is industry agnostic, Rose says a big draw from Houston is the ability to impact the future of energy.

"We're super excited about Houston as an emerging ecosystem for the clean energy transition as being the energy capital of the world, as well as all the other emerging players there are across the landscape in Houston," Rose says. "I think we can move the needle in Houston because of our national footprint."

The first order of business, Rose says, is hiring a managing director for Activate Houston. The job, which is posted online, is suited for an individual who has already developed a hardtech business and has experience and connections within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"We want to customize the program so that it makes the most sense for the community," Rose says about the position. "So, somebody that has the relationships and the knowledge of the ecosystem to be able to do that and somebody that's kind of a mentor at heart."

The program is for early-stage founders — who have raised less than $2 million in funding — working on high-impact technology. Rose explains that Activate has seen a number of microelectronics and new materials companies go through the program, and, while medical innovation is impactful, Activate doesn't focus on pharmaceutical or therapeutic industries since there are existing pathways for those products.

Ultimately, Activate is seeking innovators whose technologies fall through the cracks of existing innovation infrastructure.

"Not every business fits into the venture capital model in terms of what investors would expect to be eventual outcomes, but these these types of businesses can still have significant impact and make the world a better place," Rose says, explaining how Activate is different from an incubator or accelerator. "As opposed as compared to a traditional incubator, this is a very high touch program. You get a living stipend so you can take a big business technical risk without a personal risk. We give you a lot of hands on support and mentoring."

Each of the programs selects 10 fellows that join the program for two years. The fellows receive a living stipend, connections from Activate's robust network of mentors, and access to a curriculum specific to the program.

Since its inception, Activate has supported 104 companies and around 146 entrepreneurs associated with those companies. With the addition of Houston, Activate will be able to back 50 individuals a year.

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