When Mr. Bob’s shower trailer first pulled up, Gary and Jean were living in Tent City, a large homeless encampment beneath I-794. The pair welcomed a free, hot shower, personal care supplies and the time spent with friendly volunteers. What they probably didn’t expect was a long-term friendship that would outlast their stay in Tent City.
Bob Burmeister founded Mr. Bob’s Under the Bridge, a Grafton-based nonprofit serving Milwaukee’s homeless community, after a few personal experiences with homelessness. He first befriended local homeless people as a kid when he’d walk to the Boys and Girls Club in Riverwest, and years later, he experienced his own bout without a home to call his own, couch-surfing in friends’ living rooms.
Eventually, Burmeister began volunteering with the local homeless community, and he officially launched Mr. Bob’s in 2009. The organization brought backpacks full of supplies to weekly outreaches at local parks. In 2018, Burmeister saw a missing link – his homeless friends had access to supplies, but not the dignity of keeping up their personal hygiene. “I asked them, would it be cool if we got you guys into showers?” he says. “Everyone thought it was an awesome idea.”
Burmeister presented his dream of a mobile shower trailer at a board meeting in 2018, and thanks to community support and donations, the outreach launched just a year later. Burmeister parks the trailer, which has four private shower stalls with changing areas, at Kosciuszko Park each Saturday morning, and anyone who wants a shower can take one. The organization also provides necessities like flip-flops, towels, washcloths, body wash, shampoo and a fresh pair of underwear and socks.
Building trust with the local homeless community took time. Grabbing sandwiches or supplies from volunteers is one thing; leaving your belongings unattended while you shower in someone’s trailer requires some vulnerability. At first, only three or four people – Gary and Jean included – took showers each weekend. Now, the trailer averages 15 people during a typical visit, and Burmeister has brought it to Madison and Racine. “It’s not just about helping as many people as we can, but building connections and trust within our community,” says Katie Sadowski, vice president of the organization’s board.
Offering showers meets practical needs, but the sense of belonging is just as important for unhoused people’s well-being. “People come to Mr. Bob’s outreach because they can get necessities, but also because they’re treated well, which feeds their spirits,” says Chris Capper, who founded Just One More Ministry, a Glendale-based food rescue organization that regularly works with Mr. Bob’s. “That’s the epitome of what nonprofits should do.”
Since 2019, Gary and Jean have had stable housing – but to this day, they trek to the park a few Saturdays a year to connect with Burmeister and his volunteers. That’s exactly what Burmeister hoped for all along. “All the people we serve are like family to us,” he says.