We covered the story of Lava Mae when their idea of converting old buses into mobile showers for the homeless was just another cool crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo. Three years later, Lava Mae's big blue bus is operational and providing regular shower and hygiene services to people living on the streets of San Francisco. Not only is Lava Mae now up and running, but they've also managed to purchase and convert a second bus, and have just completed an additional mobile hygiene trailer that can be hooked up to a truck.
Lava Mae founder Doniece Sandoval, who has a background in marketing, community relations, and the arts, was eager to do something about the homelessness she saw every day in San Francisco. She began to research shower resources for them in the city and discovered there were only slightly more than a dozen available for an estimate homeless population of over 7,000 people. Her research led her to re-imagine the mobile food truck craze and explore the possibility of creating a mobile hygiene station. Going mobile would also help circumvent rapidly rising rents in San Francisco, as well as provide a way to reach homeless people all across the city.
With the help of architect Brett Terpeluk, the Lava Mae team successfully reached out to San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency to arrange the donation of a de-commissioned city MUNI bus and launched their crowdfunding campaign. A MUNI bus was not only an iconic local symbol, but also allowed the team to use a locally available resource and give a decommissioned bus a new life. The bus was retrofitted inside and out to hold the shower and toilet facilities in partnership with AIRCO of Sacramento.
The Lava Mae project has harnessed the power of cooperation to successfully launch and operate the project. On a day-to-day basis, the project is supported by essential partnership from local nonprofits, who schedule and sign up clients for the showers, from the City of San Francisco, which assists with water hook-up and disposal, and from private companies, who donate toiletries and linens. Lava Mae sets up a regular weekly schedule with stops at drop-in centers, health clinics, and public libraries, where potential users can add their name to a sign-up list.
Sandoval calls the service Lava Mae provides “radical hospitality”, and users of the bus showers are referred to as “guests”. It’s all part of the concept that helping people access shower facilities and get clean provides an element of basic human dignity.
Since their initial launch, Lava Mae has secured funding from a variety of nonprofits and private donors, including a grant from the Google Impact Challenge. The project has generated interest from communities around the globe that have been inspired to start dreaming up similar solutions. Lava Mae is currently exploring ways to share their experience and provide guidance to other communities who would like to start a similar model. You can donate toiletries for use on Lava Mae’s buses, and you can follow their progress on their blog.