Island program provides a ‘Fresh Fit’ for the unhoused

A partnership between a nonprofit coalition and a local gym is giving the unhoused community dignity, wellness — and a hot shower

By Julia Stearly
Posted 11/23/23

While it may seem like just another part of the daily routine to most, to some, showers are a luxury. When No Wrong Door, a division of Strategic Prevention Partnerships and Newport County Prevention …

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Island program provides a ‘Fresh Fit’ for the unhoused

A partnership between a nonprofit coalition and a local gym is giving the unhoused community dignity, wellness — and a hot shower

Posted

While it may seem like just another part of the daily routine to most, to some, showers are a luxury. When No Wrong Door, a division of Strategic Prevention Partnerships and Newport County Prevention Coalition, connected with the local low and no-income community, one of the main concerns was not only access to hygiene products, but somewhere to use them. This launched the inception of the Shower Subcommittee, comprised of numerous local organizations dedicated to solving this issue.

When Hakim Coggins and Bridget Manning from Strategic Prevention Partnerships got to work on this issue, similarly to the start of their Laundry Love program, they knew the first step was utilizing the community. They found that the Newport Maritime Center, managed by the Newport Harbormaster’s Office, has public showers that run on a coin slot system. In the spirit of respect and discretion, Coggins, Manning, and the rest of the Shower Subcommittee reached out and requested that they be able to set a weekly time where they could pay for public shower usage for those less fortunate. Their request was denied.

However, Planet Fitness in Middletown, home to a slew of public showers, stepped in and offered their services. Manning said, “I love the community we’ve found. When the bigger systems fail us, we use each other.”

The birth of ‘Fresh Fit’

This collaboration birthed what is now called “Fresh Fit,” a program through which the unhoused and less fortunate are granted memberships to Planet Fitness. Those who utilize the program gain full access to the gym, along with the locker rooms and showers. This allows the low and no-income community the opportunity to build a well-rounded health and wellness regimen. One member said, “It gives you a boost in confidence. It’s an everyday wellness routine no one should be deprived of, and it’s just healthy privilege for you overall.”

Back in the spring, when Fresh Fit was just an idea, the hope was to sponsor 10 memberships. Now, however, after 5 months of programming, Fresh Fit has supported 17 individuals.

Beyond just hosting the program, the staff at Planet Fitness have truly embraced their new patrons. Manning said, “They really are a judgment-free zone. It’s their tagline, and they stand by it.”

Along the same line, Coggins said, “It’s not easy for unhoused people to be accepted. There’s a lot of judgment against them, so even things like using the bathroom can be hard. These people are categorized and marginalized just for existing. Giving them the resources to go to the bathroom and shower goes a long way. Planet Fitness has really stepped in for the community and extended their arm.”

Overcoming the stigma

Coggins shared that through his work and life experiences, he’s found that one of the biggest barriers to support for the unhoused community is stigma. This is perpetuated by stereotypical ideas that those with minimal resources are dirty, deviant, and immoral. The truth is, however, that far more often than not, people fall into these situations for countless reasons that are entirely unrelated to such behavior. Housing insecurity is incredibly complex and sits at the intersection of many things, including public health, exorbitant rents, inflation, domestic violence, substance misuse, urbanization, infrastructure, unemployment, and mental illness. Coggins shared the idea that “This experience is a mental health crisis within itself, and should be treated as such.”

In addition to the causes of homelessness, when someone lands in that predicament, getting back on their feet can be extremely difficult. One reason for this is credit. People who lose housing often end up with damaged credit, which feeds into a vicious cycle where finding a new home is nearly impossible. So even if someone has the money to pay rent, there is an extreme barrier to actually obtaining housing — and they can’t break the cycle. 

When working towards rebuilding financial security, finding a job is often the first step, but for those who can’t simply fill out an online application from the comfort of their home and then drive to interviews and assigned shifts, there are many things that come into play beforehand. Before the implementation of Fresh Fit, finding a place to shower and get ready to make a good first impression proved to be a challenge. One attendee said, “I enjoy going to the gym, but I can also always get a shower, which is number one, first and foremost, most important, so I can get a job and get back on my feet.”

Responding with dignity

Many unhoused individuals avoid utilizing resources for fear of judgment due to perpetuated stigmas. Throughout all of their subdivisions, Newport County Prevention Coalition prioritizes the comfort and recognition of humanity among those who utilize their programs above all else, and this carries through their partnership with Planet Fitness.

One patron of the Fresh Fit program said, “Coming from the streets and being homeless, Planet Fitness has become such a positive place to be. When it’s cold out, when I just need somebody to talk to, Planet Fitness’s team, first of all, is great, and Fresh Fit partnering with them — they probably couldn’t have found a better partner … There’ve been places I went to workout where they just don’t make you feel at home, and at Planet Fitness they make you feel like you’re supposed to be there.”

To learn more about Fresh Fit, go to: www.strategicprevention.org/fresh-fit/ .

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