A Caravan of Care; Local 2L Member Provides Food, Clothes and Now a ‘Shower Bus’ to Akron’s Unhoused

Robert P. Ford Jr. went to a high school football game in Akron, Ohio, on a snowy night in 2018 and noticed students shivering in the stands without coats, hats or even socks.

The football coach later told him that many families struggled to afford these basic necessities, and that launched Ford on a mission to help the city’s most vulnerable.

Ford, a member of Local 2L who credits his union job at Goodyear with lifting him out of poverty decades ago, began by distributing food out of his car and from pantries he set up in two city schools.

Then he and his nonprofit, Forever R Children, established a mobile food pantry with a pickup truck provided by the local sheriff’s department and a trailer donated by a church. Aided by dozens of volunteers, including co-workers and USW retirees, Ford distributes food, clothing and other items to about 125 families each month.

Now, in his most ambitious undertaking yet, Ford recently persuaded Metro RTA, Akron’s transit agency, to donate a 45-foot-long passenger bus that he intends to retrofit with showers for homeless residents.

“If you’re dirty, people work really hard not to see you,” said Ford, a lead in Goodyear’s Final Finish Department who received the District 1 USW Cares Jefferson Award in 2021. “You can’t apply for a job, can’t apply for housing, can’t maintain health and wellbeing. Being clean is so critical, so fundamental to who we are.”

Shower buses already serve homeless residents of Miami, New York City, San Francisco and Athens, Tenn., among other locations. They provide soap, towels and toiletries, as Ford also intends to do.

Akron has the highest eviction rate in the state. The area’s unhoused population has grown over the past couple of years, with some residents living on the streets and in encampments.

The need for the shower bus dawned on Ford after visitors to his food pantry asked for sanitary wipes to clean themselves.
“There are no showers in the woods,” he noted.

Metro RTA keeps its buses on the road for a dozen years or more and then auctions them for about $50,000 each. But in this case, administrators and the agency’s 12-member board agreed to forgo the revenue and donate a bus to help Ford meet a pressing community need.

“Yes, on board, let’s go,” said Jarrod Hampshire, chief operations officer for Metro RTA, summing up the agency’s response.

“We’ve never heard of an opportunity like this before,” Hampshire said. “This is so cool. This is definitely one that we’ll be bragging about to our peers.”

The bus, which traveled Interstate 77 between Akron and Cleveland nearly every day for 13 years, will remain at the transit garage until the conversion begins.

Ford continues raising tens of thousands of dollars for the overhaul, which involves installing three showers, two bathrooms and a changing area. District 1 provided $10,000 for the project.

“Robert’s work ethic and commitment to others represent the best of the USW,” observed District 1 Director Donnie Blatt, who arranged for union members to attend the ceremony at which Metro RTA officially transferred the bus to Forever R Children. “He’s not only providing food, clothing and other essentials to some of the most disadvantaged members of the community but extending the hope and respect that also help to sustain these families.”

Ford’s compassion reflects true solidarity with those he serves.

“At one time, I was homeless. I slept in my car and had nothing to eat,” Ford explained, citing a medical condition in his late teens that left him unable to work.

His union job at Goodyear, where he’s worked for decades, helped him to get back on his feet. He added that the good wages afforded by his USW contract enabled him to fund Forever R Children’s early work on his own.

“Without the Steelworkers, I’d never, no way, make enough money to do this on the side,” said Ford, who continues to reach into his own pocket to fund the nonprofit even as he works with a growing list of sponsors and volunteers.

On a recent Saturday, for example, a couple of dozen supporters mobilized at the House of Prayer for All People in the city’s Highland Square neighborhood.

“Faith without works is dead,” said one of the helpers, Andrew Respress, a longtime USW member who retired from Goodyear and now serves on the Forever R Children board. “If you don’t do anything, how’s anything going to get done?”

Some volunteers distributed bags of meat, produce and canned goods to clients who walked or drove to the church.

Others loaded food into the Forever R Children trailer for the morning’s next distribution, on a street corner in West Akron, where clients either arrived on foot or lined up their cars at Ford’s makeshift drive-through.

“Sometimes I run low, and this helps,” explained Steven Bell, a client who’s known Ford since elementary school.

Ford hopes to have the shower bus on the road by Oct. 1. In the meantime, he’s coordinating with health providers that operate mobile clinics in the hope of creating a convoy that will provide hygiene, medical, dental, mental health and other services to homeless people, all in one place at one time.

“What I’m trying to create is a caravan of care and wellness,” Ford said.

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