Paul and Rhonda Schmitz shower their community with love
Words by Claire Pool
Illustration by Cassandra Cheng
“We get asked, ‘Why is this person homeless?’ Sometimes we have no idea. John is 73 years old. Why is a 73-year-old guy living on the street? Part of his story I have yet to uncover. Last night, he was excited because he got a job that he started that week. I was one of the first guys he told—this is all about those relationships,” said Paul Schmitz.
Paul told me all sorts of stories about ShowerUp. Talking with someone who is so passionate about what he’s doing fires you up about it too—and that’s exactly how I felt.
ShowerUp is a labor of love. The idea started with a social media ad about a mobile hospitality unit. When Paul saw it, he thought, I wonder if you could do something like that for the homeless community?
Turns out you can. Hygiene and showers are so basic to what we need as humans but are forgotten when we think about those who are homeless—so Paul and Rhonda Schmitz started ShowerUp in the fall of 2016. They had been working with the homeless community for a while, doing whatever they could to help out, but they were called to do more. Paul left a 30-plus-year career in Christian radio to work for ShowerUp full time. Rhonda continues to work for Hattie Jane’s Creamery as the COO and part owner, in addition to all she does for ShowerUp.
When they began, there were about 5,000 people in Nashville categorized as homeless or without housing, but there were less than a dozen showerheads available to them. Not less than a dozen locations for showers—less than a dozen actual showerheads. For many of the unhoused people, getting clean typically involved creeks, rivers, fountains, or rain.
One of the first people Paul and Rhonda encountered hadn’t showered in 49 days. Seven weeks without a shower not only affected his hygiene, it also made it difficult for him to find a job, be confident, and work his way off of the streets. What was true for him was true for all of Nashville’s unhoused residents. It was a big problem that needed a big solution.
Within ShowerUp’s first year, they obtained a second shower unit. Within six months, they got their third. Another four months later, they started their fourth unit, with all of them stationed in Nashville. Now, four years later, they’ve provided over 7,000 showers with expansions in Huntsville, Alabama, and Wichita, Kansas.
ShowerUp focuses on partnerships and relationships. When they pull up to a homeless community, they’re not just providing showers. Sometimes there are meals being shared, sometimes there is clothing being provided, and sometimes there are haircuts happening. It’s a community of people who share the same passion—working together to serve a community in need.
Their three-pronged approach to their work is grace, hope, and love. Paul talked to me in detail about how they see these three words come to life in their work.
Grace. It’s a faith word. An equalizer. Unmerited favor. Grace, for them, is the thing that says you and I are walking shoulder to shoulder through this life together. I’m not above you. I don’t mean more just because I have a house and you don’t.
Hope. It’s optimism. It’s something that’s so important. Hope says tomorrow is a new day. Someone said you can live a month without food, and a week without water, but less than a minute without hope.
Love. It’s the bottom line. It’s dignity, which is the simple realization that love is real. You are worthy of love. It’s why they clean showers after each use. Not because they’re cleaning up after someone, but because they want to prepare it for the next person to come in. Each person is worth it!
Paul said that one of the first questions they always get is if the showers are hot. “Well yeah, because if you were at my house the shower would be hot,” he said.
The next question they always hear is what the time limit is. “Well, there’s not one, because if you were a guest at my house, you wouldn’t have a time limit,” said Paul.
Consistency is what matters most. The unhoused community has experienced multiple occasions where someone has said “Yes! We’ll provide for you!” but then they never showed up. Consistency grows trust, and trust grows relationships. The shower is just the beginning of the relationship—it’s just a hug, a handshake. For Paul, ShowerUp is more than a shower—it’s being a friend.