Three times a week the shower truck parks outside a vacant building on Davis Street in Old Town. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays homeless people line up to get clean. Some of them sit on the chairs provided, others wait nearby. Unlike the showers in the day center at Bud Clark Commons, there is no time limit here. People can stand under the hot water as long as they want.
The shower has been a welcome service for homeless people, but it is drawing fire from merchants who say it is hurting business.
Peter Fournier is the founder of Shower to the People, Inc., a Portland based non-profit whose mission is, “to provide free basic hygiene to houseless individuals, or anyone without access to hygiene, by taking a shower trailer with two complete bathrooms to people where they live, on the street.”
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Fournier says that during an average four-hour shift about 36 people get to shower. Often there are people who are disappointed. “I’m limited by the size of the holding tank.”
As well as providing showers, Fournier’s truck is stocked with razors, soaps, shampoos, feminine hygiene supplies, socks, underwear and T-shirts.
“Anything you need to get really, really clean,” he says.
The truck has been coming to Davis Street for several months but lately tensions have flared. Merchants and community members in the vicinity are worried that the presence of the truck and its clients is bad for business and neighborhood livability.
Julie Feng owns Asia America Travel Service, LLC., whose storefront is just along the block from where the truck parks. She says that groups of homeless people, along with their dogs, bikes and carts, hang around for hours on the sidewalk and leave bottles and cigarette butts behind them. Also, she says, the truck used to stay for four hours each visit; now it stays far longer.
She adds that the Red Robe Tea House & Cafe, her neighbor on the block, has suffered a drop in business since the shower truck started operating nearby.
Feng understands that the truck is providing a necessary service, is doing a good thing, but she says, “we are trying to provide a welcome to tourists, to make a clean environment for them to walk around near the Chinese garden. Why can’t (the truck) go somewhere else in the city. Why do they come to Chinatown?”
For one simple reason, says Fournier. “This is where the homeless people are.” He maintains that he and his clients are always scrupulous about cleaning up the sidewalk before the truck leaves.
One recent afternoon, after a visit from the police –- spurred by merchant complaints — tensions spilled over and Fournier, Shower to the People clients and Stephen Ying, who is on the Old Town Chinatown neighborhood association and known as the unofficial mayor of Chinatown, ended up in a shouting match in the street.
“They wouldn’t listen to me, didn’t understand that I have a heart to help the homeless,” says Ying. Some of them said, “go back to China.”
Since then, says Fournier, the truck has received several visits from the police, parking enforcement and members of Portland Patrol, Inc.
Fournier is no stranger to confrontation. In the summer of 2011 he was the subject of a cover story “Bad Neighbor,” in the Willamette Week newspaper. It details how he bought and then lost to foreclosure the Bitar Mansion near Laurelhurst Park and how he was involved in bitter disputes with his neighbors, the city of Portland, and, more pertinently to his current occupation, with the homeless people who slept in or near Laurelhurst Park.
Fournier, at one time, saw homeless people as a danger to park users and nearby homeowners.
These days he is a passionate defender of the civil rights of the homeless and he spends his days running the shower truck. Tuesdays and Thursdays when he is not at Davis Street, he takes the truck to a women’s shelter and to other homeless shelters in the area.
He cleans out the shower stalls after each use with what he describes as medical grade cleaners and spends hours before and after each daily shift maintaining and provisioning the truck.
What wrought this transformation? “I did have a beef surrounding homeless people, “ says Fournier. “But I did a 180° after I started meeting and talking more to people who lived in their cars near the park. I met this older couple. She had just had a stroke. They were living on the front bench of their pickup truck. It was a totally unacceptable.”
Is he driven by religious faith? When I started this, I didn’t see it as a ministry,” says Fournier. “People don’t get a sermon with their shower. It’s a humanitarian service.”
He says the truck cost $60,000 to buy and convert and that he spends about $700 per month to maintain it and fill it with supplies. Lately donations have been coming in, but he is actively seeking grants to expand the service.
And he and city officials seem to be working towards a compromise on finding the most appropriate place for the shower truck to park three days a week.
Fournier says that his number one priority is providing service to his customers. He has been told he can return to Davis Street for a few more shifts until a more suitable spot has been located.
He has agreed to move, as long as he can stay in Chinatown where his clients are. In the longer term, he says, Shower to the People and the Old Town Chinatown neighborhood and business associations will work to develop a good neighbor agreement.
Fournier’s ideal spot? Under the Burnside Bridge, which is both away from businesses and a shelter from the winter rain.
Last week Fournier met with Mike Boyer, crime prevention program coordinator for Old Town Chinatown and other central city neighborhoods, as well as representatives from the Portland Police and the Clean and Safe Team to discuss the situation. The parties decided to work together over the long term on a good neighbor agreement.
Boyer says that he has committed to finding a more appropriate spot for the truck to park. The shower program he says, “has a very positive impact overall. It’s a good operation. We just have to address some of the livability concerns.”