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Social Work on Wheels: Providing Showers to the Homeless

Posted by Brian Spence on Apr 9, 2018 8:00:00 AM

HomelessTaking a shower is a ritual most people do daily. Most homeless people, however, don't have this privilege. Most don't have access to water resources to keep clean. One woman decided to help this population in San Francisco receive showers. Lava Mae, a nonprofit organization, delivers free showers to help homeless people through mobile bathroom units. The non-profit is trying to expand access for homeless people to receive showers during 2018.

A Young Woman's Cry Sparks an Idea

Doniece Sandoval is the founder of Lava Mae. "What if you couldn't shower if you needed or wanted to?" she asked in an online interview. "It's something so simple that most of us take for granted, but it gives a sense of self-worth and dignity."

Sandoval worked as a marketing executive before she launched her organization. "My background was in marketing, branding, and public relations, not working with the homeless," she said. A career professional lived with her family in San Francisco's Western Addition area. When she moved in, the historic, middle-class African-American neighborhood was becoming gentrified. Rents skyrocketed. Her elderly neighbors, three African-American men in their 80s, faced eviction. They ended up losing their homes and their cars. The men died on the streets.

On another day, Sandoval passed by a young homeless woman and her friend sitting on the street. The woman was crying. "I will never be clean," she said. The young woman's tears touched Sandoval's heart. She wondered what types of opportunities did the young woman have. She wanted to know about public facilities that homeless people could access to keep clean.

What Sandoval learned shocked her. There were more than 116,000 homeless people in California. More than 3,500 (in 2014) on the streets of San Francisco. That number expanded to 7,000 in 2016. There were only seven drop-in centers in the city, which translated to only 16 total showers for more than 3,500 people. Sandoval thought if you could take gourmet food and deliver it on wheels, then why not showers.

Lava Mae Launches

Founder Doniece Sandoval started Lava Mae in 2013. That year, her organization received a scrapped bus donated by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Sandoval raised more than $75,000 to retrofit the bus with a shower and a toilet. She commissioned a local architect to help turn the bus into a working bathroom with heated water.

In 2014, her organization pilot-tested its first mobile shower unit on the streets of San Francisco. The mobile unit can provide 300 - 500 showers per week. Sandoval called her service radical hospitality. She believes it's not only important to serve others but to treat them with kindness and respect. "Lava Mae is changing the way people see and transition through homelessness," Sandoval said.


Transforming Buses into Mobile Showers

Today, Sandoval takes retired transportation buses and turns them into bathrooms on wheels. Lava Mae even has commercial shower trailers. Homeless men and women can book a 15-minute appointment to take a shower. Lava Mae volunteers hook up the bus to a fire hydrant and heat the water. Individuals receive fresh towels and soap. They are also provided with toiletries so they can stay clean in between visits.

Pop-Up Care Villages

They have now started areas called Pop-Up Care Villages where multiple providers address critical services. They get dental services, medical services, and haircuts. "The way you serve someone is as important as the service itself," Sandoval says. Her volunteers learn people's names and stories. Volunteers try to help them feel better than when they came. They currently service San Francisco and Los Angeles. The organization is now teaching other individuals how to start similar mobile shower services in cities across the country.

Sandoval won the 2017 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award for her work. If you are interested in working with others who provide similar and rewarding work, contact us to learn about opportunities.

And, if interested in learning more about this and related social work topics, visit the Behavioral Health section of our blog.

 

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