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.