Mobile showers offer dignity to San Francisco's homeless

On a cold, bright morning in downtown San Francisco, a vibrant blue bus pulls up beside the YWAM (Youth With A Mission), based in the Tenderloin on Ellis Street between Taylor and Jones. But this is no ordinary commuter bus. Its doors spring open to reveal not rows of seats but several pristine shower and toilet cubicles.

Outside, the sidewalk has become a hive of activity. Volunteers start connecting a large hose to the nearest water hydrant and sort fresh cotton towels into baskets. As they work, a small group gathers off to one side, some clutching plastic bags filled with toothbrushes, soap and washcloths. They are a small percentage of San Francisco's homeless population and are about to enjoy a hot shower in comfort and privacy – a rare luxury for people living on the streets.

It’s all thanks to Lava Mae, a local non-profit restoring dignity to homeless people in San Francisco, one hot shower at a time. The mobile service provides free shower, toilet and changing facilities to hundreds of people across the city every week.

San Francisco may be one of the richest and most populous cities in America, but it is also in the depths of a homeless crisis. In the shadows of Silicon Valley – that great bastion of wealth populated by technology giants like Apple, Google, Facebook – thousands of people, unable to keep up with rising rents and living expenses, now live on the streets.

"It's really amazing what a shower can do and the possibilities it can unlock." 

Photo courtesy of Lava Mae/Sole Moller.

A recent report by the city's Human Services Agency put income inequality in San Francisco on par with Rwanda. In 2013, an overnight count recorded 6,436 homeless people living in the city, with 3,401 of them sleeping on the streets. Yet the city boasts just a handful of places where homeless people can wash themselves in private.

"It’s impossible to live in San Francisco and not be impacted by homelessness," said Doniece Sandoval, founder of Lava Mae.

A chance encounter in the city’s South of Market neighbourhood, known for its abundance of hip technology firms and people sleeping rough, inspired Doniece to launch her mobile shower service for the homeless.

“One day two years or so ago, I passed a young woman sitting on the street. She was crying and saying over and over to herself that she’d never be clean,” said Doniece.

While knowing that there could be many layers to this woman's words, the encounter stuck with Doniece. After researching shower resources for the homeless in her city, she was stunned to discover how few options were available. She found just eight facilities offering showers to the homeless, each containing one to two stalls at the most.

"That’s about 16 showers for over 3,000 people," added Doniece. “This was right around the height of the food truck craze and I thought that if we could transport gourmet foods on trucks then why not showers and toilets?”

The former Bay Area PR executive started Lava Mae in 2013. Within six months she raised $75,000 through crowdfunding site Indiegogo and procured a scrapped bus donated by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. With the help of a local architect, she used the money to retrofit the vehicle with showers and toilets.

In June 2014, Lave Mae piloted its first mobile sanitation unit on the streets of San Francisco and now provides up to 500 showers a week to homeless people across the city.

Photo courtesy of Lava Mae/Sole Moller.

"The first time people see the bus, they can't believe it contains showers and toilets," said Doniece. “They’re also a little wary but once they see inside and use it, their opinion is totally different. We worked really hard to ensure it would be beautiful.

“Their reaction is the most rewarding part of the project. It’s been humbling to have someone thank you profusely for something so simple – something that the rest of us take for granted.”

Both the United Nations and World Health Organisation class access to water and sanitation as a basic human right. Doniece says it is “beyond belief” that this is a problem in first world countries like the USA and has seen first-hand the difference a hot shower can make.

"It's about providing dignity to people. Since we launched the initial bus I’ve seen countless people after they showered and heard them say that they 'felt human for the first time in a long time’ or ‘were recovering their sense of dignity.'"

“This is a beautiful thing,” agrees service user Bobby after his first time on the Lava Mae bus. “Sometimes taking a shower is messy, dirty, there might be violence. On this bus it was clean, it was quiet, I wasn’t bothered. It was personal. People were courteous and kind. I feel brand new. If we can have more like this, especially on the streets of San Francisco, it’ll help.”

Doniece estimates that Lava Mae has provided 1,500 showers to around 800 people since rolling out its first bus over six months ago.

"This is a beautiful thing…I feel brand new" – service user Bobby after visiting the Lava Mae bus.

Photo courtesy of Lava Mae/Sole Moller.

The non-profit recently completed funding for a second bus by raising almost $52,000 via Indiegogo and another $25,000 through private donors. Doniece aims to eventually have a fleet of four buses operating across the city: "Once we have four buses on the road, we can offer 50,000 showers per year."

So far, Lava Mae has sourced $110,000 through online crowdfunding and received a $100,000 grant from Google as a part of its Bay Area Impact Challenge program. It also receives support from smaller foundations and members of the public, who can donate online.

But the generosity doesn't stop there. “We’re also incredibly thankful to all our volunteers and to everyone who has donated toiletries because they’re the lifeblood of what we do. We have people pass by our bus everyday who stop to offer money, toiletries, time. It’s truly inspiring,” added Doniece.

There are also plans to launch an international arm of the non-profit by Spring 2015. Lava Mae Global will offer support and advice to hundreds of organisations that have already shown interest in replicating the project in their own communities, from cities in Santa Clara and Hawaii to Nigeria and South Korea.

Among those inspired by Lava Mae’s success are nine students from New York City, where approximately 58,000 people are homeless. The founders of fledgling project, Showered With Hope, are all 19 – 25 years old. After receiving advice from Doniece, they are now pursuing crowdfunding for their project and seeking support from their community.

Photo courtesy of Lava Mae/Sole Moller.

"In 2014, the expense budget for The City of New York outlined that around $1.1 billion dollars was spent on homeless prevention and medical reimbursements for the homeless. We think we can do it for less," said co-founder David Lin, 19.

“After speaking with people experiencing homelessness, we found that taking a shower changes their outlook on the day. If we can make sure people can shower every day, then we could change their outlook on their entire year.”

But Lava Mae isn't just about giving hot showers to the homeless. It works on the idea that people experiencing homelessness can’t access jobs or housing, or maintain health and wellbeing, if they can’t get clean. With hygiene comes dignity, and with dignity comes opportunity, says Doniece.

“Even though we’ve only been in service for seven months we have a lot of regulars whose backgrounds and stories we’ve become familiar with. It’s been incredibly rewarding to hear stories of guests lining up job interviews, getting housing and generally improving their lives by being able to get clean on a regular basis. It’s really amazing what a shower can do and the possibilities it can unlock.”

Laura Smith is the Editorial Officer for INSP (International Network of Street Papers), a non-profit organisation supporting 115 independent street papers in 36 countries around the world. This article was originally published on the INSP News Service.