An old blue bus pulls up to a wellness center in downtown San Francisco, and a small crowd forms. Young and old, men and women are waiting to board for their turn to bathe. This city bus has been modified as a sanitation station with two private bathrooms, each including a shower, toilet, sink, and changing area. The brainchild of Doniece Sandoval, a former public relations executive, Lava Mae (a play on the Spanish for “wash me”) provides up to 500 showers a week for the thousands of homeless people who sleep on the streets in this city.
“We reconnect people with their dignity,” says Doniece.
Two years ago, Doniece overheard a homeless woman on a San Francisco sidewalk say that she’d never be clean. “That made me wonder what her opportunities were to actually get clean,” says Doniece. She learned that San Francisco had only eight public shower facilities. “I thought, If you can put food on wheels, why not showers?” she says.
Doniece persuaded the city to give her four decommissioned buses that she then had remodeled with $75,000 she’d raised on a crowdfunding website. Each bus connects to a fire hydrant for water, which is heated by large batteries on board. Wastewater is drained into city sewers.
The first bus hit the road in July 2014; a second one rolled out in early 2015. Doniece plans to put the other two buses elsewhere in the Bay Area and imagines expanding the program internationally.
Those in need of a shower sign up for a 15-minute time slot at a local homeless shelter, and Lava Mae provides towels, shampoo, soap, and a new pair of socks.
“No matter how clean you try to stay on the street, you’re going to be grimy,” said Silas Borden, a military veteran who showers weekly on a Lava Mae bus in the Mission neighborhood. “And I want to wash it off.”
Says Doniece, “It’s a humbling experience to see people come off the bus so grateful for something that should be a natural human right.”