Homeless Shower Bus Launches in San Francisco

After two years of planning, donations and fanfare, the mobile shower service from Lava Mae is launching regular service as cities around the world watch.

by / June 27, 2014

After two years of planning, start-up Lava Mae will begin offering its weekly mobile shower service to the homeless residents of San Francisco on June 28, beginning on Saturdays in the Mission District.

Lava Mae's service, enabled through a partnership with the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, is made possible by a customized bus, donated by the city. The organization is running a six-month pilot that will provide valuable insight as the organization expands the program, Founder Doniece Sandoval said, adding that in 2015, there are plans to take three more buses out of storage and put them into circulation.

Sandoval explained that Lava Mae was created to provide a comfort to those without a stable residence, but she also hopes to see social impact. “As we begin to see people over and over again, we’re hoping we’re developing a relationship and building some trust," she said. "And maybe they can sit down with us outside and share what actually taking this shower has meant to them and if it translated into any changes in their lives, and begin to document that."

The service will expand after July 18 to include additional days of service and neighborhoods, including Bayview and the Tenderloin, which are in partnership with Mother Brown, the United Council of Human Services, Youth with a Mission, and Glide. 

Since first coming up with the idea, reception from the public, government and private organizations has been very positive, Sandoval said. On June 21, Lava Mae opened its bus to the public as part of a launch celebration. “People were really enamored by the idea of it. It was totally a different thing to see the reality,” Sandoval said. “This is how I felt when I first saw it. It just so exceeded expectations. It was really cool. People were cheery and exuberant. We’ve had no detractors, which is great.”

The project has also attracted attention from localities around the world, including plans for similar projects in cities in Singapore and Brazil. “We’re at the point now where we’re talking with about 25 different communities, both globally and in the U.S., that are interested in taking our model and creating it in their communities, and they all want us to work with them,” Sandoval said. “It’s kind of ad-hoc right now, but the vision is to create Lava Mae in a box so that they will be able to go to a platform and download the resources, and we would be able to help them as well.”

It’s mostly been volunteer groups and non-profits that have reached out, she said, but one city, Honolulu, showed strong interest in replicating the program. The city was interested in everything about the program, she said, from the service delivery model, the hours they run, and what it would take to make a government-run version of the program work. One thing Honolulu has going for it is that it happens to have the same make and model bus that Lava Mae used, Sandoval said.

Lava Mae is a non-profit, and getting buy-in from the city was crucial to its success, Sandoval explained. San Francisco’s homelessness czar, Bevan Dufty, is on Lava Mae’s advisory board and has helped the effort every step of the way, Sandoval said, noting that  without a champion within the city, things would probably have been “doubly harder."

Lava Mae had to get permits and permissions for parking and hydrant usage, and agencies like Public Works and the Department of Health also wanted to know what they were doing. Navigating all those agencies while persuading officials that what they were doing was worthwhile would have been very difficult without a city official helping them, Sandoval said.

As service is ramped up in the coming weeks, Lava Mae will refine its approach to service delivery and identify how things could be done better, Sandoval said. In addition to Sandoval, Lava Mae now has two employees. Regular operation will also require two volunteers each day, she said, and so far, there have been a lot of people offering to help.

Lava Mae received services, equipment and supplies donations from Kohler, Continental Tire, Laundry Locker, Maxwell's Soaps, Daily Concepts, Vital Oxide, Pace Supply, Diasen, Ecodrain, Lift Design Build and AIRCO. Dr. Bronner's donated supplies and $50,000, and Google provided $100,000 through an Impact Challenge Grant.

The bus design was led by San Francisco-based architect Brett Terpeluk. Lave Mae has four buses, three in storage, each equipped with two private ADA-compliant hygiene pods complete with shower, toilet, sink, temporary storage and changing room. The design was based off interviews with former and currently homeless people who reported a desire for privacy and safety, according to Lava Mae.

Colin Wood former staff writer

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

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