Old buses become showers for the homeless

Lava Mae is a non-profit organisation that transforms buses into mobile showers for the thousands living on the streets of San Francisco.

When the city of San Francisco decided to retire its old 1992 Gilig buses, Lava Mae founder Doniece Sandoval had a lightbulb moment: it was the perfect opportunity to start a project that had long been on her bucket list – mobile showers for the homeless.

With a background in public relations and development for private and non-profit organisations, Sandoval has a knack for finding original solutions to problems. The initial idea behind Lava Mae came to Sandoval after meeting a homeless woman in tears over the fact that she had never been clean.

Of the 7 350 homeless people in San Francisco, more than half have no option but to make the streets their home. For these people a hot shower is a rare find and considered a luxury when it should be a basic human right. There are only eight sanitation facilities in the city where the homeless can shower, but these locations are in high demand and cannot accommodate everyone.

“When you’re homeless and you're living on the streets, and you're filthy and you're trying to improve your circumstances, you get disconnected from your sense of humanity," says Sandoval.

The driving factor behind the Lava Mae initiative is a prevailing belief that providing hygiene to the homeless can restore their sense of dignity and self worth, and consequently create an opportunity to escape a life of unemployment and social exile. Don Suiter, who is currently living homeless in San Francisco, puts things into perspective:

My God, go three days without a shower. Just three days. Pretty soon, you just feel like a worm, a social worm.

With the support of the local municipality, various non-profit centres for the homeless and the donations of private volunteers, Lava Mae (a loose translation of “wash me” in Spanish) officially launched its first bus a couple months ago, and aims to assemble three more in the near future.

With a fleet of four buses Sandoval predicts that Lava Mae will be able to provide over 2 000 showers per week.

The blue exterior of the bus includes symbols letting the homeless community know that wheelchair users and all genders are welcome (even intersex individuals).

Inside, the bus is fitted with two shower pods complete with a skylight, a digitally-controlled shower head with hot and cold water, a sink, a toilet, a built-in radio and a small changing area. When guests are done, they receive a hygiene kit to keep clean before their next 20-minute Lava Mae shower.

The mobile service is able to reach thousands of homeless people spread throughout the city, and stops at particular points to connect with fire hydrants, from which it draws its water. An eco-friendly disinfectant cleans the pods between showers, and the used shower water is returned back to sidewalk catch-basins. All septic water is removed by a waste-water hauling company.

In the spirit of open-source sharing and given the universality of the problem, Lava Mae offers a startup guide on its website for those interested in setting up the shower service in their own cities.