WAVE Project brings showers and essentials, including love and kindness, to metro Detroiters in need

WAVE Project, Welcoming All Valuing Everyone, is a grassroots nonprofit based in Clinton Township, serving metro Detroit. I’m one of the co-founders, alongside my wife, Laura, and our friends, as well as the volunteer executive director. I also work as a middle school teacher. 

In 2018, while serving together as part of a multi-site church, we saw so many needs. We felt God calling us out to follow him, and to help where we could. We had conversations around this, and found our hearts were close to the homeless, to those who are often left behind, looked over and passed by.

We began to dream about how we could serve this population. There are nonprofits doing wonderful work, and we didn’t want to duplicate services, but to find a way to uniquely impact those experiencing homelessness. As we prayed through it, we began to talk with other groups. We were inspired by a San Francisco-based organization called LavaMae, that initially built out a large municipal bus to bring mobile showers and essential care services to the streets.

For over a year, we held monthly community barbecues, spending time with people in the homeless community. It became evident to us what a supreme barrier transportation is for people in need. Being mobile became a foundational principle for us. Our population often has to decide whether to spend their energy, and maybe only bus fare, in getting a meal, temporary shelter or a public shower. As described to us, hygiene can easily fall down the list. The first person who shared her story with me, said she carried so many other immediate concerns, that she sometimes went weeks or months washing in drinking fountains and public bathrooms.

Testimonies like this encouraged us to develop the shower service program we're operating today. We want to love people, first and foremost, and our goal is to go to the need. As metro Detroiters, it's important to our organization and board, that we seek out opportunities in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb County. I'm happy to say that we're in all three every week. 

One of our core tenets is to collaborate with others. If people are investing their time and resources to get to the location, we want them to receive support from another nonprofit, whether it be a meal, laundry services, mental health support, substance abuse counseling, etc. We can be there to provide showers, clothes and essentials. We’re very intentional to plan these services with our partners along major bus routes.

Consistency is also extremely important. We want the people we're building relationships with to understand we're going to be there for them. So, if at all possible, you can count on WAVE Project being at Teen Wellness Center on the eastside of Detroit every Saturday, rain, shine, challenging circumstances or not. At our locations, we sometimes give 30-40 showers in a few hours , and other times, it’s just one. We believe in the importance of that one.

Last year, with the help of our supporters, we held 309 events at 11 different sites across Metro Detroit, providing over 1800 showers. We try to have open arms to say, wherever we can, we do. This is a balancing act, as we have no full-time staff. In 2021, we were able to hire two part-time coordinators who run our shower services every Tuesday and Thursday, alongside our part-time Essentials Van coordinator. Saturday, our largest service day, is completely run by volunteers.  

When COVID-19 hit, we had to shut down for several months in order to keep our guests and volunteers safe. That broke our hearts, and organizationally it was tough. We were faithful to do what we could, and in those moments, there were opportunities for innovation. We developed a pantry program in Mt. Clemens and in New Baltimore, donated our paper products and cleaning supplies to local shelters and financially supported some of our partners doing frontline work.

We relaunched in August 2020, implementing masks, social distancing, non-contact registration, electrostatic sprayers and timers to allow our shower space to regularly air out. From a volunteer standpoint, my own family included, there was a gap in people feeling safe enough to be on site. It was a big leap of faith to say, Okay, God, we need people who are comfortable or feeling called to do this work. Who will you bring?

We also began dreaming of our Essentials Van, something that wasn't even on our radar before COVID-19. It's designed like a large closet with shirts, pants, underwear, socks, hygiene kits, backpacks, blankets, etc. People walk up to the service window, get their essentials, take a shower and go. Another critical part of that program is providing drop-in services. As we're driving around town, we're intentional to keep an eye out at places where we know our friends are, like MacArthur Park in Mt. Clemens, to see if they need anything. It’s been really beautiful.

We do send hundreds of items out that window every single day, a good thing. But our organization isn't large enough to take on many used donations because we can't store them, sort them, etc. For those who want to help us provide essential supplies, we're glad to have you do so here. We're only able to do what we do because of all the unique and awesome ways we’re supported, and I can’t give God enough glory for this. 

Throughout COVID-19, we’ve seen wonderful people who’ve long been caring for communities close their doors from a lack of funding and volunteers. This is very concerning to me. Yet, I am encouraged that in this tough, gritty, diverse and beautiful place, there are people hitting the streets trying to love and help others. They aren’t doing it for the money, and if you give them something, it’s passed on the very next day. We also have good organizations here saying, go do it. We want to help you, let us know what you need. That’s a story that should be told more. 

In caring for people, it can be a challenge when others, justifiably, want to know your measurable outcomes. Some potential funders have asked us, how are you helping people experiencing homelessness no longer be homeless? And in a vacuum, if I were looking to fund a program, that’s a very thoughtful way of quantifying it. But, when somebody asks me how we're helping people not be homeless, I say, we're not. That's not why we exist. We exist to love people first. 

Todd Gordon is the executive director of WAVE Project, serving homeless communities across metro Detroit. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.