Most of us have suffered through the frustration of needing to quickly get ready for work, only to have to wait for a roommate to finish his shower. Now imagine having to share that shower with not one or two other people, but hundreds.
That’s precisely the situation facing San Francisco’s estimated 6,436 homeless residents, who currently have just seven places in the city where they can shower.
Motivated by the belief that everyone has the right to be clean, Doniece Sandoval founded LavaMae, a non-profit with an innovative idea: take old, unused city buses and retrofit them with fully functioning showers for homeless people to use. Last weekend, LavaMae, a play on the Spanish word for “wash me,” launched its first mobile bus.
“Our buses were designed in consultation with homeless people,” Sandoval told ThinkProgress, a process that has taken over a year.
For example, many homeless women expressed concern for their safety and privacy while showering. As a result, Sandoval and her team designed two individual shower pods in each bus, one of which is accessible for persons with disabilities.
Each pod includes not only a shower, but also a toilet, sink, and a space to temporarily store one’s things. Each bus will permit around 30 people to shower on a given day. Once all four buses are running, Sandoval estimates they will be able to provide more than 2,000 showers per week. (See more photos of the buses and interior here.)
“We’re mobile because we want to reach people where they are,” Sandoval said. In addition, “If we built a brick-and-mortar concept, it would cost a whole lot more.”
The city donated four decommissioned municipal buses to LavaMae and allows the organization to tap into fire hydrants, but retrofitting them with shower pods costs $75,000 per bus.
Funding for the buses comes from a mix of sources. LavaMae raised $58,000 from an Indiegogo campaign, as well as contributions from individuals and small private family foundations. Sandoval and her husband also put a significant amount of their own money into the project.
LavaMae released a video to coincide with its launch:
Kara Zordel, Executive Director of Project Homeless Connect, an innovative program that easily connects homeless people with service providers, had high praise for LavaMae. “This is bigger than showers, this is community change through action,” Zordel told ThinkProgress. “Sandoval serves as a role model that inspires me daily. One person can make radical change.”
LavaMae plans to use the launch of the first bus as a pilot run in order to test and improve service. Sandoval said she expected that all four buses would be operating by Spring 2015.
Showers won’t end homelessness. That’s not the point, says Sandoval. “What we are about is providing hygiene, because we believe that hygiene brings dignity and dignity opens up opportunity.”