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Q&A: Phoenix CDS preps for winter with donation drive for 'Howie,' the mobile hygiene truck

Phoenix Community Development Services Resource Development Manager Jolene Whisler
Camryn Cutinello
Jolene Whisler, iPhoenix Community Development Services' resource development manager.

Phoenix Community Development Services is collecting donations for its mobile hygiene truck.

The truck is called Howie, which stands for Hygiene on Wheels Independence Empowered. It has toilets, showers, washers and dryers onboard for people experiencing homelessness to use.

Phoenix CDS take it to locations in Peoria, Tazewell, Fulton and Woodford counties.

WCBU's Camryn Cutinello spoke with Resource Development Manager Jolene Whisler about the truck and how it works.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the donation drive for?

Jolene Whisler: So the event is called Fill Howie. And the purpose is a donation drive to fill Howie with items that we would need. So think about what you need, just for your essentials every day. So shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, toothbrushes. Since the weather is getting colder, they're definitely going to need blankets, clothing, hats, mittens. Also, hand warmers, and feet warmers, you can get those as well. So anything when you think of that you would need, our consumers need, too.

How did Howie get started?

Whisler: Howie got started a few years ago. Obviously United Way, we are a community partner partner with the United Way. And we were able to acquire Howie. And he's been a bit of a big hit. We call him a he, we refer to him sometimes as if he's one of our employees. And sometimes he calls in sick when he has mechanical issues we say he's calling in sick. But yeah, Howie has been a great success in the community. A wonderful outreach tool, but also something that consumers in all four counties who are struggling and experiencing homelessness look forward to the opportunity to get that shower and do their laundry and just feel like themselves again.

During the pandemic did you see more of a need for this truck?

Whisler: Yes, we did. We had a need for that more. Howie was out and about on the prowl for sure. But we really do have a very good engagement rate with Howie. So, we have a lot of people that know when he's coming, they'll show up or will call and ask when Howie is going to be out and about, and where.

And then when you say as an engagement tool, can you talk about maybe what that looks like?

Whisler: For example, we will take Howie, and this is just for example, over to Sophia's kitchen. If you're familiar with Sophia's kitchen, on the south end of Peoria. And we'll park Howie out front. So when people are stopping by getting a meal or their peanut butter jelly sandwiches, as they're famous for there, they're also able to stop in and utilize the restrooms, take a shower, do their laundry. People generally know when we're going to be and where we're going to be. And we do have a pretty good turnout. So... the engagement tool is a matter of talking to folks as they're doing laundry, you know, 'what's your name? Where are you from?' What their situation is, and see how we can help get them permanent supportive housing, or if there's any other services that we provide, such as behavioral health, that kind of thing. That's one of the things that sets us apart from other organizations similar to ours, is that we are a certified accredited behavioral health provider.

Is it different when you go to the city versus the rural communities?

Whisler: In the counties of Woodford and Fulton, because they are a little more rural, the numbers do tend to be a little lower than what you would find in the metropolitan, I guess you could say, if you will, Peoria area. However there are some cases such as in Tazewell County where the homeless numbers are unfortunately growing. So, we try to be in Pekin, our outreach team, twice a week if they're able to, not necessarily bringing Howie with them. But in the community, engaging with our consumers to see how we can help.

How often in a week does Howie go out?

Whisler: Well, it depends again, how he has his own little personality, it seems like so when we're not having, if we don't have any issues with him, or if our outreach team has the capability that week to go out, we try to take out twice a week.

How do you determine how often you go to which counties?

Whisler: That's left to the discretion of the outreach manager. I believe that she does work with partners in those communities to find out what is a good day and time to bring Howie there. Where we would get, I guess you could say, more participation level. But yeah, that's left up to the outreach manager.

As we enter winter, we all know it's gonna get very cold it's gonna get snowy, what are the main challenges for the homeless community?

Whisler: It's weather, you hit it spot on. Weather is definitely a challenge. And when people are cold, they tend to be more, we tend to be more hungry, right? A little more mood swings, right? When you have this kind of weather. But it is a challenge. We do donation drives such as this. So we are able to provide the essential items that folks who are experiencing homelessness, living on the streets, tent encampments, have those items for them. Whether it's the blankets, the coats, that type of thing, clothing, and obviously bottled water, whether it's cold or hot, we all need [to be] hydrated. So that's always an essential need that we always have on us is bottled water. So, those are the items that help us keep Howie rolling, that keeps our outreach team rolling, to be able to have the supplies that they need to give to those that we're serving.

When you do these sorts of drives, what is the response from the community at large for them?

Whisler: Well, last year is the first year we did Fill Howie, and we're doing the same thing. So, last year we were in Woodford County, we were [at] Eureka College. They have a dormitory there that I don't know if it's being used right now at Jones Hall, and we parked Howie out in the in the parking lot there. And it's been really great to have student participation, whether it's your fraternities or sororities or your folks who are not committed to a fraternal organization. All students have been wonderful about getting together and sort of doing their own little collection and bring it to us.

Last year. Woodford County did amazing for never having done this before. Especially for that county not having to see us that much, which is a good thing, right? They had a wonderful turnout. Fulton County, over in Canton. We paired up with HyVee and to have the city, so in Peoria and Canton we pair it up with HyVee at that time. This year, we're partnering with Walmart, so it's a little more accessible that way. So, when people are shopping at Walmart, if they wanted to pick up a few things, as they're going in, they see our truck and pick up a few extra things if they're able to. It's much appreciated it.

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Camryn Cutinello is a reporter at WCBU. You can reach Camryn at cncutin@ilstu.edu.