Think Out Loud

Sunnyside Shower Project for Portlanders living on the street expands to southwest

By Allison Frost (OPB)
May 8, 2024 12:34 a.m. Updated: May 8, 2024 6:57 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, May 8

A sign in the Sunnyside neighborhood points the way to showers for people experiencing homelessness.

A sign in the Sunnyside neighborhood points the way to showers for people experiencing homelessness.

Courtesy The Sunnyside Shower Project


In 2020, Southeast Portland resident Hannah Wallace went out with members of her neighborhood association and asked people living on the streets what they needed most. The two things they heard most? Showers and laundry facilities.

Wallace started the Sunnyside Shower Project in response. The project began at Sunnyside Methodist Church with Wallace and a handful of volunteers offering showers twice a week. It now has dozens of volunteers, and people can come three days a week to get a shower and other resources when available, including free toiletries, laundry cards and help connecting with other services, like the Oregon Health Plan and drug treatment.

Since it began, the Multnomah Village volunteer group Southwest Outreach began their own version at Riversgate Church. In February, a new Shower Project opened at the 13 Salmon shelter at the First Unitarian Church downtown. Kelly Clendenon began volunteering several years ago and helped launch the project with some guidance from Wallace and others. He’s now the Project’s coordinator and says that as a person who lived on the streets for many years, his current work is especially meaningful.

Clendenon and Wallace join us to tell us more about what it takes to run these projects and what difference one shower can make for someone otherwise without access.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. On a chilly December day in 2020, Southeast Portland resident Hannah Wallace made what she called the radical decision to get to know her houseless neighbors. She and other members of her neighborhood association asked people living on the streets what they needed most. The answers they heard over and over were showers and laundry facilities. So Wallace started the Sunnyside Shower Project in response. Since it began, two more shower projects have started up in Portland. Kelly Clendenon helped launch one of them after living on the streets himself for a number of years. Hannah Wallace and Kelly Clendenon both join me now, it’s great to have both of you on the show.

Hannah Wallace: Thank you for having us.

Kelly Clendenon: Thanks for having us.

Miller: Hannah, first. I mentioned you went out in December of 2020, the depths of the pandemic, along with other members of your neighborhood association to talk with people experiencing homelessness. Why? What drove you?

Wallace: There had been a changing of the guard at the neighborhood association. There was an election the previous summer, and there were a lot of more progressive and “can do” people on the board. And we just wanted to do something, welcome them, and be neighbors to them. There had been kind of a sense of people being afraid of homeless people before that iteration of the neighborhood association. I wasn’t actually a part of the neighborhood association at the time, but we went as a group over there, asked them questions, asked them what their greatest needs were. And I think we were kind of expecting them to say food, but actually, they already had lunches taken care of by a different organization. So every single one of them said showers and laundry were their biggest needs. That was really interesting information for us because we were able to connect with the church just across the street from where the camp was at the time.

Miller: Was your initial idea though, “let’s ask this question because we want to provide services?” Or “let’s be broadly friendly and neighborly and get to know their names?” When you walked there to begin with, were you thinking “I want to actually start a big project?”

Wallace: Definitely not. I think it was the latter. It was definitely wanting to be friendly and get to know their names, and just sort of find out what their greatest needs were.

Miller: And you heard, our greatest needs, said a lot of people, are showers. What was your first step?

Wallace: We went back to the drawing board, I think at our next meeting. There’s somebody in the neighborhood who wasn’t yet on the board who was also very interested in helping with the trash situation, which was sort of around the camp but also just everywhere in Portland at the time, which you probably remember. And he was also very interested in just doing something. And so we were talking about that. And then somebody was like “Hannah, why don’t you do hygiene?” And I was like “OK.” I did not know what that meant when I was asked to do it.

One of the board members of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association at the time was the minister of the church. And so she was like “Well, we have showers in our basement that are there already from a previous nonprofit. If the neighborhood association wanted to run something, we would let you use the facility on a trial basis.”

Miller: If you provide the human capital, they would provide the showers?

Wallace: Exactly.

Miller: What was it like to get volunteers from the neighborhood?

Wallace: It was actually easier than you might think. I guess I’m a good organizer. I didn’t realize it until I started doing it. But it was in the middle of the pandemic. And I think people had in some ways more time than they used to, because they were stuck at home. And there was a real need and desire amongst people, in our neighborhood anyway, to create community and get to know neighbors, whether homeless or other volunteers. And so I asked all my neighbors, I asked my friends, I asked friends of friends, I put up things on the neighborhood association website. And I ended up getting enough volunteers. For a while, most volunteers were working once a week. But once I started getting more volunteers, now it’s usually every other week that you do a shift.

Miller: What was it like when you started up, that first day?

Wallace: A little scary, I didn’t know everyone yet. But once we did a week or two, I started knowing people by their first names. And then it was just like, “hey, how you doing, Mark, what’s going on?”

Miller: What was scary at the beginning?

Wallace: I think just not knowing people and not knowing what to expect. But honestly, I like to say it’s not rocket science, you’re just kind of being neighborly to your neighbors. You’re inviting them in, offering them a tea, and waiting and hanging out with them until the next person leaves the shower. We always have two volunteers at a time, so you take turns, one person cleans the shower while the other person stays upstairs and kind of chats with people.

I wasn’t that scared. It was just more like “what am I doing?” This is new. I’m actually a journalist, so I don’t really have any training in social work or anything else like that. It’s a lot of learning on the job.

Miller: Hannah, I want to hear more about how it’s been going and what you’ve learned. But as I noted, Kelly Clendenon is with us as well, now the shower coordinator for the First Unitarian’s 13 Salmon Shower Project in downtown Portland. Where did the idea come for you to emulate what Hannah is doing, Hannah and many other neighbors in Southeast?

Clendenon: Well, I was volunteering for an organization called COHHO, Community for Hunger and Homelessness through First Unitarian. And I’ve been doing that for a couple of years because I just wanted to give back, because a lot of people helped me on my journey to recovery. I mentioned that I had the capacity to give more time to a project. And I approached someone at COHHO, and they put me in touch with Dana Buell at First Unitarian. She’s the social justice director there. She and I met last April, and we just started collaborating, and shadowed Hannah at Sunnyside. And that’s how it all began.

Miller: What kind of advice did you get from Hannah that proved to be particularly helpful?

Clendenon: I think it’s really about developing relationships with the people that are on the street. That, to me, is the most important thing.

Miller: As opposed to saying “here’s the soap, here’s the shampoo.”

Clendenon: Well of course, that’s huge. That’s the draw. You come in, have a shower, get some coffee. And give out Narcan too, I should mention, because we are in the midst of a fentanyl crisis, obviously. But showers are super important, they go a long way. I think ultimately our bigger goal is to connect with the broader community.

Wallace: I should say that Dana actually is my neighbor, and she was a volunteer at the Sunnyside Shower Project. She was one of the first volunteers. And so she kind of was inspired a bit by what we were doing, and then was like “I see this happening downtown too.” It really made me happy because I think once I realized what we were doing in this sort of community building that was happening in Sunnyside, I realized this could be replicated in every neighborhood around Portland. It’s work, it does take a lot of work to start it up. But once you get the willing neighbors and you start the community building, it’s great.

Clendenon: It’s doable.

Wallace: Yeah.

Miller: Kelly, you mentioned that a lot of people helped you on your road to recovery. I noted at the beginning that you spent some number of years homeless yourself. How long were you on the street?

Clendenon: About three years, off and on, in and around Portland. It’s a long story but basically it was about three years.

Miller: In those years, what did it take for you to access a shower?

Clendenon: The kindness of other strangers. One situation stands out to me. I remember I was in a cubby hole at a business downtown at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning. And I ran into a random stranger on the street. I told him about my situation and he took me to his gym and let me take a shower. That was just really huge to me. That went a long way. It was really a kindness from a stranger.


Miller: So when you say that you told him about your situation, you said “hey, is there any place I can get a shower?”

Clendenon: I don’t recall how it went down exactly. But I think he saw that I was not having a great day and that I probably didn’t smell great. And he just took me down the street to his 24 Hour Fitness. And it meant a lot to me.

Miller: That’s a much bigger give on the part of a fellow passerby than a dollar or half a sandwich that they aren’t interested in eating. He took you in to some place.

Clendenon: Yeah.

Miller: What does it mean to you now to be offering showers to people who are currently homeless?

Clendenon: It means the world to me. I’m so grateful to be in a position to actually give back. The lived experience that I have has been really helpful for providing a bridge between the volunteers at the 13 Salmon Shower Project, and myself and the people that are on the street. It’s been an amazing experience.

Miller: Hannah, at this point, how big is your operation?

Wallace: We have about 24 regular volunteers, and about 10 subs who we can call on when someone’s going out of town or gets sick. And we have three volunteers who are either homeless now or formerly homeless. One of whom is getting paid a small stipend. And another one who is deep cleaning our bathroom twice a month.

Miller: And how often can people actually access showers?

Clendenon: Three days a week – Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. When we originally started, it was just two days. And then because it went well, the church was like “yep, you can do another day.” So we’re doing three days a week. Each volunteer tends to do one two hour shift every other week. That’s ideal, because I just didn’t want people to burn out. It gives you a chance to have a week off and then do it again the next week.

Miller: How have you spread the word, or how has the word been spread?

Wallace: To guests? It’s really been word of mouth. In the beginning it was easy, because there was a camp right next to the church. So everybody just lined up and we had way too many people who wanted showers who couldn’t get them. But now with everyone dispersed because of all the sweeps and stuff, there’s no easy way … I don’t actually know where people are staying most of the time. But we still have a lot of people coming.

We’re in the Street Roots Guide, that little book that everybody has. We have a website now, we have an Instagram. We try to post, like we had a three week break over in April, so we post things like that on there just to get the word out. But I would say that most of our guests find out from other guests.

Miller: What are the biggest challenges that you’ve encountered as you’ve been doing this for a number of years now?

Wallace: It’s a good question. Finding volunteers can be a challenge. We have some that have taken a mental health break or whatever. So that’s always an ongoing thing is trying to find new volunteers, if anyone is interested. And I would say fundraising also. We’re trying to get some grants. We have kind of an informal grant committee. We’d like to have a paid shower coordinator, someone who can do what I’ve been doing, but also somebody who’s houseless who could get paid to do some of the behind the scenes work.

Miller: What about in terms of the provision of the services, and how those have evolved over the years?

Wallace: Basically, we’re still operating the same way we did in the beginning. We’ve added more amenities, we have clothes now, we got a grant to disperse Narcan so we give that out freely. We do trainings for our volunteers. We have de-escalation trainings two to three times a year because. We always have new volunteers, so I like to offer it regularly. We’ve had Narcan trainings. We had a really good Narcan training with Ellen Wirshup from Project Red. We’re always trying to offer our volunteers trainings just so they feel equipped to deal with our guests. Luckily we haven’t had too many incidents with our guests. Occasionally, maybe one or two fights between guests. But that hasn’t really been a problem, which is good.

I feel lucky. I think so many of our guests are so happy for the service that they respect us and what we’re doing so much that they don’t want to put the project in danger. So anytime we’ve had an issue with a guest, if we explain that and say “Look, we’re guests ourselves in this church, this is not our building. The Groves is letting us be here as a kindness, but if we have issues they might kick us out.” If we explain that to our guests, they’ll be like “Oh, sorry. I promise not to do drugs anymore,” or whatever the issue is, not saying that happened.

I think in general there’s a real sense of community. We don’t wanna endanger this program, so we’ll behave ourselves as best we can.

Miller: Kelly, after getting advice from Hannah and others and working with various partnerships to get this up and running, what was it like when you were able to actually offer showers for the first time? This was back in February.

Clendenon: It was amazing. It was such a great experience. This is all new to me and we’re learning as we go. But it was one of the happiest days of my life, honestly. We’re open Wednesdays from 11 to 3 currently. And we hope to expand eventually. But for now, it’s just tremendously gratifying. It’s been about three months now, and so far we’ve been meeting our quotas and exceeding that every week. It’s extremely gratifying.

Wallace: You can just see the smiles on people’s faces when they leave. This often happens, I’m sure you see this too, when people come in they can be kind of maybe grumpy or down. And then you’ll hear someone singing in the shower from upstairs. And you just know it’s made their day. It’s a very simple thing that we all take for granted. But seeing and hearing their demeanor change when they’re coming up from a clean shower, and people say “I feel so much better, thank you.”

Miller: How much can these showers be a bridge to connect people with other services or with housing assistance or recovery?

Wallace: I think quite a bit, actually. The reason people come is the showers. That’s the essential reason people show up. But with the relationship building and getting to know people, we found that over time people will say “Hey, could you help me get housing? I know you now and I trust you.” That’s happened several times. Several of our guests have gotten housing through Northwest Pilot Project, but they wouldn’t have known who to call or how to reach that person. Actually, two of our volunteers work for Northwest Pilot Project. And we have a person from Recovery Works NW who used to come once a week who was relationship building, and just in case anyone wants to go to detox, then he would be kind of someone who could get them in.

Miller: Kelly, how do you all think about being an avenue for getting people connected in other ways once they’re in the door?

Clendenon: That’s definitely one of our long term goals, I want to be able to connect people to those services also. As it stands right now, we have flyers out with all the different services, similar to the things they hand out at the library. I would like to be more hands on in the future, providing people with housing, that sort of thing. For now, we’re just kind of starting small and building up.

Miller: Hannah, you wrote about your experiences in Portland Monthly not too long ago, and you said that after you started doing this you would recognize people who were houseless in your neighborhood. They knew your name, you knew their name, and you’d say hello. Before you did this, would you have called the people who were living on the street in your neighborhood your neighbors?

Wallace: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think I would have. I don’t think I had thought about it actually. I definitely think, like most Portlanders, I was intimidated or maybe a little wary of the houseless camp before I started to get to know people. I’ll never forget that first day that we knocked on tents, as they say, and we were giving out hats and clementines and talking to the people in the tents, and I just felt like “Oh, this is so easy, this is talking to another person. I feel like I’m at a party, just meeting new people, and it doesn’t feel any different than that.” That changed everything for me, because getting to know people on a first name basis, you walk through your community during the pandemic like “Hey Marshall, how are you?” or “Hey Mark, how’s it going?” My husband would joke as we go on walks in the neighborhood like “I hope we don’t run into one of your friends,” because we get stuck and we get talking.

Miller: Has that changed your experience of living in your neighborhood?

Wallace: Yeah, definitely. I actually feel safer now than I used to, because I know that if anything happened, I could call one of my houseless friends and they would come to my aid. If they had a phone.

Miller: Has that affected the way you think about homelessness more broadly outside of your neighborhood?

Wallace: Yeah, for sure. I think it’s very granular. In every neighborhood it is possible to get to know the people who are living in tents, and to know their stories, know who they are, know their humanity. And there’s a reciprocity that I see a lot at the Shower Project, you probably see this too Kelly, where people really want to do something for us. They’ll bring in like a ground score, like something they find on the street that they think one of us would like, or they bring in some wildflowers, or they bring in food. One guy recently brought in a big bag of razors because he noticed we didn’t have any. They want to do something to help the project continue and be a good project. And so we’ll take it.

Miller: So there is this shower project that Kelly helped start at 13 Salmon at the first Unitarian Church. There’s another one also in Southwest Portland at Riversgate Church. How often do people get in touch with you and say “I’d like to somehow replicate your model?”

Wallace: Hasn’t happened a lot lately. Sandy, who runs the Southwest Outreach one, was a volunteer at the Sunnyside Shower Project. So I sort of hope I’m spawning a bunch of people who are gonna go out. Quite a few of our volunteers don’t come from Sunnyside, they come from other neighborhoods. They drive across town to volunteer, which I think is very impressive. Love my volunteers.

We’ve gotten a couple, I would say probably maybe five people or neighborhood associations who’ve reached out over the past three years. But I haven’t seen them come to fruition except for these two.

Miller: Hannah and Kelly, thanks very much.

Wallace: Thank you.

Clendenon: Thank you.

Miller: Hannah Wallace is a freelance journalist and the founder of the Sunnyside Shower Project. Kelly Clendenon is the shower coordinator for the First Unitarian Church’s 13 Salmon Shower Project.

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