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San Francisco Startup Buses Showers to Homeless

Following a federal grant to the city, old buses will be donated to a new startup offering mobile shower and toilet services to the homeless.

San Francisco's homeless population, estimated at up to 10,000, will soon get some hygiene help from a local entrepreneur. A new startup called Lava Mae will use decommissioned buses donated by the city to provide mobile showers, delousing chambers and toilets to the homeless. Doniece Sandoval, who started the organization, said they will start with a single bus and eventually expand the operation to four buses that will roam the city.

The city received a federal grant to upgrade its buses and the city’s original plan, Sandoval said, was to sell 40 old buses for a nominal fee to make room for the new vehicles. But as a nonprofit organization, Sandoval was told she could have as many buses as she wanted, which will greatly reduce her costs.

“There’s a UN and World Health Organization statement that says that these two things, access to water and sanitation, are basic human rights and it’s sad that here in a city as affluent as San Francisco, there are thousands of people who struggle with access to either,” Sandoval said.

Sandoval had to adjust her original vision as she encountered obstacles. Originally, she planned for each bus to have six showers, six toilets, and on-board water tanks. She discovered, however, that water tanks would have destabilized the vehicles and that there would only be enough room for three showers and two toilets on each vehicle. To get water, the organization got permission from the city to tap into fire hydrants, which will be metered and paid for by the nonprofit. They will put on-demand water heaters on each shower so that warm showers will be available.

The group also needs to figure out how to prevent people from loitering in public when the bus stops in various places. Getting past these types of obstacles has largely been possible thanks to cooperation from Mayor Ed Lee's office. Without support from the city, most notably Bevan Dufty, Director of HOPE (Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement) for the City and County of San Francisco, making the project a reality would have been much more difficult, she explained.

Originally, Sandoval planned to refurbish the buses out of state -- an expensive proposition. But she found a local design firm that she believes will be able to do the job for a fraction of the cost. Her total costs will be between $150,000 and $200,000 during the years they acquire the buses, and costs should drop after that. The first Lava Mae bus will need supplies, two paid staff members, liability insurance, and fuel to get started.

There are a few benefits of a mobile shower service, according to Sandoval. First, it’s cheaper to operate a bus than it is to build onto an existing brick-and-mortar facility and start paying property taxes. Lava Mae will collaborate with facilities that offer other services, but not showers, to reach their audience.

Secondly, while some homeless people suffer from mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder or substance abuse issues, there are those who are simply down on their luck, Sandoval said. “There are people for whom a shower might mean the opportunity for a job or apply for housing, where if you show up and you’re dirty, people won’t take you seriously at all,” she said.

Eventually, Sandoval said, Lava Mae could incorporate some form of technology to get the word out to the homeless population about their location. They are considering text messaging to reach homeless people who have cell phones or perhaps some kind of alert bracelet.

Though still in the early planning stages, Sandoval said she has already received interest from people in cities around the country who want her to expand in their areas. “That’s really the long-term vision – to create best practices that we can share,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be Lava Mae necessarily because every community can be slightly different, but I just want to demonstrate that it can be a totally local project that can be easy to execute if somebody puts their hand up and says, ‘Here you go. This is how you do it.’”

Photo by David Kidd

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.