Giving the homeless a ‘Clean Start’ in Anderson

ANDERSON — Five years ago, the kindly then-pastor of St. Mary of the Angels Church invited a homeless man into the rectory, which he shared with his fellow Franciscan friars, for a shower and breakfast. The odor of the man and his clothes, the pastor said, lingered for days.
A handful of parishioners who volunteer at the Anderson Soup Kitchen nodded in understanding, and then started wondering: Where do the homeless go to find a shower and get clean clothes?
That seminal discussion led to Clean Start, a ministry that now includes volunteers from many area churches. The ministry raised enough money from those congregations and organizations such as the Knights of Columbus to rent and renovate a building within walking distance of the soup kitchen.
“We have four regular shower rooms and one handicapped shower,” said Norene Smith, a  retired nurse and volunteer operations manager of Clean Start. “We give each person a clean jump suit to wear after his shower while his clothes are being laundered.”
The building includes banks of commercial washers and dryers, tables and chairs, and shelves full of donated clothing and shoes.
On operating days, homeless people arrive in the morning to shower and enjoy coffee and doughnuts. Volunteers wash their clothes and clean and disinfect each shower room between uses. Two barbers come in one day each to cut hair. The homeless may also use the telephone and Clean Start’s address for mail delivery.
The service has proven to be enormously popular over its three-year lifespan.
“We’re open Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings and we see about 100 people,” said Anthony Soignoli, a volunteer. “We charge our clients nothing and none of us gets paid. We get a great deal of support from the local community. It’s a nice exercise in ecumenism.”
To illustrate the collaborative nature of the ministry, Soignoli told the story of a 10 year-old local girl who asked for soaps and socks as birthday presents. She then donated her gifts to Clean Start.
Franciscan Father Aubrey McNeil, pastor of St. Mary and a board member of Clean Start, said that the ministry is entirely lay-operated and has had a noticeable effect in town.
“After it started, workers at the soup kitchen began to notice the difference,” he said. “The emergency room of the hospital called to say thanks for helping these homeless guys not only smell better but feel better about themselves.”
The owner of the building where Clean Start operates decided to sell it  in 2008 for $75,000. The ministry had already spent more than $30,000 from donations to renovate and equip the place. Since the people of this small city set among the farms and forests had already approved the site for serving the homeless, the decision to buy it was “almost a no-brainer,” according to Soignoli.
“Within six months, we had the money, including $35,000 from the Catholic Church Extension Society,” he said.
 St. Mary of the Angels is a 360-family parish that is half Hispanic, one-quarter black and one-quarter white. Since it is situated in a rural county and is under-resourced, it qualified for the Extension Society grant.
Clean Start finalized the purchase during Easter week. Volunteers celebrated by cleaning up after their cleaned-up clients.