A couple times a week, a bus pulls up near where people living on the streets gather, and a near panic is about to happen.
At first, everyone lines up orderly. But then Joe Trembly will have to tell people he has to shut down, and those who didn’t make it on board will understandably lose it.
The non-profit Trembly helped set up in August 2017 to run the bus is called Showering Love (showeringlove.org). Volunteers with the organization overhauled a former tourist bus with $100,000-plus in donations, adding a pair of showers and tanks to hold the water. He gets so much demand he typically runs out before he can give everyone access.
“It is so unbelievably hard to tell them when we run out of water because I know how important that shower is to them,” Trembly says.
He knows because he was there himself, back when he was homeless, living behind a dumpster. A stranger’s offer to let him shower changed everything.
Trembly’s mobile showers are only a side gig. His day job is at Keystone Halls, which helps hundreds overcome homelessness every year and is currently in a rapid expansion. The job saved Trembly from the problems of his past and allows him to help people who are on the same path.
Things took a turn for Trembly, 53, in 1989 when he got fired from his job as a district manager for a food company. He says it was because he was gay, and that rejection crushed his spirit, making him feel like the world had pushed him out. He lost his car, his apartment, and then found himself sleeping behind a dumpster at a strip mall near Commercial Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale.
“I had grown up in a family that was modest, but we never went without, and here I was with nothing,” he says. For a year he considered that spot next to the dumpster the only place he felt safe enough to sleep. A stranger finally offered him a job and a place to shower. It might seem inconsequential for those who haven’t gone through it, but Trembly says just simply being able to bathe made him feel cleansed, inside and out, and it was enough for him to start turning things around.
“I realize today why I went through that, so I’m grateful for it,” he says. “I remember being scared and lonely, and feeling left out and forgotten. But it’s an experience I needed today because it’s what gave me the passion to make a difference.”
After the stranger helped him off the streets, it seemed like Trembly’s trajectory was only up. But addiction took hold again, and it ended with him spending eight years in federal prison for conspiracy to distribute meth. A judge ordered him into treatment, and afterward, he got a job in 2013 at Keystone Halls. He handles the intake of new clients at the shelter and helps them with life skills like hygiene, anger management and applying for jobs. The non-profit is in its 19th year and operates 65 beds in several Broward County properties. The Community Foundation of Broward recently awarded Keystone Halls a $75,000 grant to help LGBTQ people who are without a home.
Trembly married in 2015, and in February he and his partner adopted a 5-year-old boy whose mother fought addiction and homelessness. Trembly’s story of prison and living on the streets is one that is still hard for him to tell, but he also realizes sometimes it’s what people need to hear to know they can make it too.
“I think back on it,” Trembly says, “and it’s amazing. It’s amazing what you can pull through if someone is willing to help you.”
In August, the City of Fort Lauderdale ordered mobile showers to shut down, claiming they violated city code. The action wasn’t a surprise to homeless advocates, who say the city has a history of a heavy-handed approach to the problem. In May 2017, the city bulldozed the homeless encampment at Stranahan Park; the city later paid a $40,000 settlement to 10 people who lost their possessions in the destruction. Trembly says he isn’t sure how the city’s crackdown on showers would affect Showering Love’s, but he’s hopeful a deal will be cut.