San Francisco Non-Profit Puts Showers And Toilets On A Bus, Hopes To Restore Dignity To Homeless

Image via Instagram/Lava Mae

One San Francisco-based nonprofit organization is tackling homelessness not from its source but from the repercussions it causes. With a mobile bus equipped with showers and toilets, Lava Mae — which means “wash me” in Spanish — has a mission to restore dignity to the homeless, one shower at a time.

I just thought, if you can put gourmet food on wheels and take it anywhere, then why not showers and toilets?” Founder Doniece Sandoval says in a launch video for Lava Mae.

Sandoval contacted the city to inquire about a fleet of city buses that were going to be retired soon and was given a few buses in donation to execute her vision.

Sandoval and her team worked and reworked the Lava Mae mobile shower bus design until it was just right. After gutting the city bus of its original seating and fixtures, the team installed shower pods, toilets and a water heater. The water for the showers and toilets comes from city fire hydrants, allowing the bus to be completely mobile. And while the idea sounds relatively simple, it was unprecedented, making it much more difficult in execution than in theory.

“We like to say that this is a simple service, founded on the simple idea that everyone has right to get clean — but it has not been a simple undertaking to get it off the ground!” Leah Filler, Lava Mae’s community engagement & mobile services manager, told Wall Street Insanity. “Repurposing a transportation vehicle into mobile bathrooms – plumbing on wheels – has never been done before. From constantly tweaking and evolving the designs of the bus to navigating the myriad permitting agencies here in San Francisco, problem solving, creative thinking and our fierce belief that this can be a powerful and impactful way to deliver this service has helped us push through.”

On June 28, Lava Mae launched its pilot program and hosted its first showers in the city. “A success!” The nonprofit’s blog said of the big day. Now the organization is testing the efficacy and design of its first mobile shower bus, hoping to iron out any kinks and raise funds to retrofit three more buses to start running by next spring. The goal is to have a fleet of buses offering daily shower and sanitation service in San Francisco, enabling more than 1,800 people to shower each week.

And the organization doesn’t want to stop there. It reports that interest organizations around the world have expressed interest, and Lava Mae hopes to be able to streamline the process and “start a mobile revolution in services for the underserved and homeless” so that an idea like theirs can be executed anywhere.

It’s not about ending homelessness, the organization insists — that’s not its goal. Giving people the gift of hygiene isn’t going to do that, but restoring their confidence and giving them a helping hand could be just the thing to help them back on their feet. And so far, it’s working.

What we can do is remove a barrier and provide a critical stepping stone – access to clean, private, and safe showers and toilets – to help restore a sense of self-worth for a population struggling to retain their dignity and humanity,” Filler says. “We’ve even been contacted by a company who saw one of our homeless clients interviewed in a press story that aired after our first day of service — they want to speak to him about a job! We believe that with hygiene comes dignity, and with dignity, opportunity.”

Find out how you can volunteer or make donations to the Lava Mae Organization here.