Many of us probably take a hot shower for granted, but the team at Lava Mae understands its restorative power. It gets us clean, but it also provides the time and space for a mental health break. And for those living without a home it can restore a sense of dignity.
Lava Mae brings critical hygiene services to the streets of California by transforming public transportation buses and trailers into mobile shower and toilet facilities. And we caught up founder Doniece Sandoval to learn more.
Take us back to the beginning. What sparked the idea of Lava Mae?
One day in early 2013, I was in a cab shooting through the Tenderloin. This is a district with the highest and most visible concentration of people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco. The cabbie turned over his shoulder and said, “Welcome to the land of broken dreams.” His harsh words snapped me to attention.
Looking out the window and seeing — really seeing the people there — my first thought was not a single one of them, as children, dreamed of growing up to live on the street. Yet here they were. The thought of them as little kids, like my then 5-year old daughter, pierced me.
The need to help became visceral and, though it took a while before an idea presented itself, I fully committed myself to make a difference in the lives of people moving through homelessness. It could’ve been completely random (or not) that I eventually came across a young woman who was panhandling and saying over and over again that she would never be clean. It stirred my curiosity about opportunities to get clean as every unhoused person I saw was struggling with hygiene.
I went home that night and hopped on the computer to find out that, at the time, there were only 16 shower stalls and about as many toilets for the 7,500 people experiencing homelessness in SF. For some crazy reason, I thought I could help; my obsession with mobile food sent my mental wheels whirring.
But the crowning moment came when I stumbled across a story in the SF Chronicle about the federal government providing SFMTA with funds to replace the city’s old diesel buses. The light went on and the idea for Lava Mae was born.
How did you go from having the idea to make a difference to being fully operational and making a difference?
It was part fierce tenacity/passion, part the beauty of ignorance/not knowing what it would take to make it a reality, and part collaboration. I found champions who believed in the idea and helped bring city organizations and nonprofit partners to the table to help us access the resources needed to deliver our service (water, parking, buses etc).
I also spent a lot of time talking to the people Lava Mae would eventually serve to find out what they needed and wanted and how they’d like to have it delivered. From the beginning, human-centered design has been at the heart of how we create our programs.
When we had the design and laid out a delivery plan, we went out to the people – the broader community through an IndieGoGo campaign – and asked them to help us fund the retrofit of our first bus. The story went viral; we raised the funds, converted our first bus, and unveiled our service in June of 2014.
Lava Mae operates by the principle of “Radical Hospitality.” What does that term mean to you and the team?
Radical Hospitality is about truly seeing and honoring all fellow human beings. In terms of our service, its focus is on our unhoused neighbors. People often say to us: “We get the hospitality, but why is it radical?”
It’s radical because this level of care is rarely extended to people moving through homelessness. Raising the bar around how you provide service is revolutionary.
Hospitality because it’s rooted in generosity and our shared humanity; we go as many miles as it takes to deliver a feeling of comfort and care and we recognize that our guests are #JustLikeUs.
And the act of bringing service to someone where they are – meeting them in their space is, in and of itself, an act of profound care and respect. So we take our service to the streets because that’s where our guests are.
Underpinning it all is dignity. Because dignity, at its core, encompasses both how you feel about yourself and how people treat you.
You’ve been in operation since 2014, what have you learned and how has your work evolved over the years?
We learned a lot. We’ve learned language matters. Homeless is a set of circumstances; not a person. We call our guests unhoused or houseless neighbors.
We’ve learned the vast majority of people in our communities care. They often don’t know what to do or how to help. Their perception is colored by stereotypes that dominate society’s vision of who is unhoused, those that are addicts, mentally ill, or lazy.
We’ve learned access to sanitation and showers is a global problem. We’ve fielded over 4,000 requests for help. From as far away as Mongolia and Zimbabwe, and as close as San Diego. Displacement is on the rise because of issues of homelessness and the growing political and climate refugee crisis.
In 2018, you partnered with Unilever as part of their The Right to Dignity social mission. What does the backing of such an established brand mean to your organization?
When a very successful, multi-national brand wants to partner with you, it’s an enormous validation of your work and your brand. It’s also an incredible signal to the world that this service is in high demand; communities around the globe are in need. With Unilever’s help, we can transform access to ensure our houseless neighbors across this country can get and stay clean. And in doing so, we can rekindle their dignity, and reconnect with a sense of hope.
The Bay Area, where you’re headquartered, has one of the highest populations of people experiencing homelessness in the country. How does that crisis impact your work?
Like anyone who lives here, we are astounded by how a region overflowing with wealth and defined by innovation can have such a breathtaking problem. There are 107 millionaires per square mile and an additional 60 billionaires in SF alone.
When HUD categorizes $100,000/year salary as “low-income,” when the middle class struggles to find housing, and when it takes a minimum wage worker earning $15/hr for 171.5 hours per week to afford a fair market rental, it becomes clear why so many people have been and are being displaced. It translates to greater demand for our service and longer and longer periods of time serving guests who have become regulars because they can’t find a way out.
What’s been the response of the community to your work?
For the most part, it’s been brilliant. People generally understand what a shower makes possible: self-respect, dignity, access to opportunities, and an increase in health and well-being. All it takes is a moment of contemplation about life without a shower to understand why it’s so valuable. And through partnerships, we’ve engaged every sector from private companies to other nonprofits and government agencies. We also have solid support from several of the tech companies and locally-headquartered businesses like Kaiser Permanente, including legions of their employees.
How can people help?
They, of course, can donate. This helps fund all of our programs and deliver our services. If you live in the Bay Area, we’d love to have you volunteer with us. If you’re outside the Bay Area and want to replicate this closer to home, you can check out our buildIt toolkit, which has all the resources you need to bring Lava Mae into your own community.