All the Difference

By Kiley Jacques

Lava Mae addresses a chronic challenge facing homeless populations.

With its mission to “take radical hospitality to the street,” Lava Mae gives people experiencing homelessness access to shower facilities—by making them mobile. Founded in San Francisco in 2014, Lava Mae converts retired city buses into hygiene facilities to deliver showers and “rekindle dignity.”

“Homelessness is something that had been on my radar for a while,” says Doniece Sandoval, Lava Mae’s founder and chief executive officer. “It’s an incredibly visible issue in this city.”

Sandoval describes her own neighborhood’s gentrification, recalling elderly neighbors who ended up first living in their cars after being evicted, then on the streets—“gentlemen in their 80s, so unprepared for that kind of life. No one is prepared for [that].” She watched as they suffered their circumstances, and she tried, impossibly, to explain their situation to her then-five-year-old daughter. That marked the start of what would become her true life’s work.

Doniece Sandoval, Lava Mae’s founder and chief executive officer, with regional director Paul Asplund. Photo: Emily Hagopian

“I was convinced I wanted to do something,” says Sandoval. It was when passing by a young woman living on the street that she settled on what that something would be. The woman’s repeated declaration that she “would never get clean” struck Sandoval as unacceptable; she views access to personal hygiene facilities as a fundamental human right. “Every homeless person that I saw was struggling with hygiene,” she recalls, noting that research she conducted into the matter revealed “the shocking lack of showers and toilets available to homeless people.” There are approximately 7,500 homeless people living in San Francisco; they are expected to share 16 shower stalls and an equal number of toilets.

She attributes the idea for transportable units to her long-standing interest in the mobile food industry. “People put gourmet food on wheels and take it all over the place. I thought: Why can’t we do this with showers and toilets?”

Within weeks of her decision to get the ball rolling, she learned that the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency (SFMTA) was in the process of replacing old diesel buses with new hybrid models. The availability of those buses was key to her vision.

Lava Mae has expanded to Los Angeles to bring much-needed mobile hygiene services to the more than 46,000 individuals  experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County.

Lava Mae has expanded to Los Angeles to bring much-needed mobile hygiene services to the more than 46,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County.

Lava Mae in San Francisco. Photo: Emily Hagopian.

Her first move was to contact the “then-tzar of homelessness” in the Mayor’s Office, who sent her out into the city with a list of more than 30 people and agencies with whom to share her idea. She returned with full backing. She got her buses and the city’s support, including that of SFMTA, San Francisco Water, and the Department of Public Works, among others. She then assembled an advisory committee of nonprofits serving the homeless population. “It was vital for us to build on what was already out there,” she says of the idea to “co-locate” the buses in places the homeless population frequents for other services. “It let us take advantage of partners who are really knowledgeable about how to provide services to people experiencing homelessness . . . if we could pull up in front of a partner and [our guests] could access other services, that would double the impact of what we were doing,” she explains, adding: “From day one, we have been rooted in partnership and we continue to operate that way to this day.” Two years in, Lava Mae provides up to 42 showers per day. Frontline staff are taught de-escalation techniques and behavioral management skills, as they are working in sometimes volatile environments. Each mobile facility is staffed with a unit service coordinator and an ambassador, whose job includes guest services, volunteer training, and data tracking.

Sandoval notes that nearly 62 percent of the population that they serve has a disability that impacts how quickly they can move in and out of the showers. Staff accommodate everyone’s individual needs. “We operate from a philosophy we call ‘radical hospitality,’ explains Sandoval. “We see our guests and go that extra mile to really care for them, connect with them, and make sure they leave feeling better than when they arrived.” She makes reference to the “emotional response” some guests have to being in a shower for the first time in months—they, too, can require a bit more time. “We just work with that,” says Sandoval.

Regional director Paul Asplund, having once been homeless himself, recalls learning about Lava Mae two years ago, when he first moved to San Francisco. “It was like a lightning bolt,” he says. “I just knew that it works. It’s such a simple idea. No matter how you end up losing your home . . . the path back . . . a shower is essential.”

He makes the point that for anyone to be part of society, it’s necessary to be clean. It’s also understood to be a prerequisite for any job interview. Privacy, too, is a part of it all: “Just to have 15 minutes of privacy in a world where you’re moving from shelter to breakfast line to clothing line to lunch line and then back to the shelter at night—you don’t have any place of your own.”

Asplund knows that being clean is vital to one’s psychological well-being. A shower, he says, is as essential as food or medical care. “It is one of those linchpin things that builds resilience.”

He notes the many services available to help people “return to society.” But the idea behind Lava Mae, he feels, is special in its simplicity. “The programs are wonderful but this is something necessary for them to even show up to benefit from those programs.”

Kohler and Lava Mae’s partnership is an excellent example of how nonprofit/for-profit collaborations can successfully innovate new ways to meet the needs of our homeless.

Kohler and Lava Mae’s partnership is an excellent example of how nonprofit/for-profit collaborations can successfully innovate new ways to meet the needs of our homeless.

And what do guests have to say about Lava Mae? “I feel fresh and ready to start the week,” says one man, noting the uplifting effect of the eucalyptus and peppermint soaps. Another adds: “I can only hope that when I get a place, my shower will be as nice.” He notes, too, how much he appreciates the features that accommodate his disability.

So successful are Lava Mae’s San Francisco services that they have recently launched in Los Angeles, where they have opted to use a trailer-and-hitch model rather than buses, which require commercial licenses. These “pods,” as they are called, have increased capacity, accommodating three full bathrooms, whereas the buses are equipped with two. Sandoval has set her sights on Silicon Valley next, and given the more than 12,000 requests for assistance she has received from around the globe, she is putting together an online “tool kit”—to be released in January 2017—that will enable communities to create their own mobile hygiene services “from soup to nuts.”

Beyond social services, sustainability is integral to Lava Mae’s operations. Given California’s drought status, it is vital to keep as green a footprint as possible. “We really want to be conscientious users of water and energy,” notes Sandoval. It was, therefore, ideal to partner with Kohler Co., a Wisconsin-based manufacturer of eco-friendly plumbing products, and a Platinum-level member of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). “It’s been a perfect, beautiful partnership,” she says, adding that she thinks very highly of Kohler for having contacted her. “We didn’t reach out to them, they found us—you know this is a company that is trying to do good in the world.”

Rob Zimmerman, Kohler’s director of marketing, projects, specifications, and sustainability, sees Lava Mae as a natural fit for the company’s philanthropic endeavors. “So much of our plumbing brand is about providing a higher sense of graciousness of living for everyone who is touched by our products and services,” he says, acknowledging that the people who typically enjoy their products are homeowners or hotel guests. Serving a homeless population is of special interest.

“When I heard Doniece talking about people who don’t have access to a shower here in the United States,” recalls Zimmerman, “ . . . it felt like ‘gracious living’ has a much broader potential reach, and we should be thinking, as a company, about how to use products that we have created for one market to provide benefits in a very different way.”

Zimmerman worked with Lava Mae’s architect designing the two-pod buses to fit them with the right plumbing to meet users’ needs and to satisfy California state’s water efficiency requirements. Their mission was two fold: supply water for people using the facilities and manage water use to keep it affordable.

They had to be cognizant of saving water as well as “the appearance of wasting water,” says Zimmerman. WaterSense products include toilets, faucets, sinks, and a digital thermostatic valve showering system (DTV), with which water temperature is digitally controlled using a key pad; when the water reaches the programmed temperature, it stops. Guests get into the shower, hit the start button, and the water comes back on at the set temperature. This pause function means water isn’t running the entire time. “It’s a high-end product,” notes Zimmerman, “but applied in this way, it allows [Lava Mae] to manage not only the water consumption but also the energy required to heat that water.”

As a product manufacturer, Kohler tends to be focused on the features and benefits of its products. But Zimmerman has put himself in the place of someone living on the streets who may not have had a shower in months, and he imagines the feelings associated with finally being able to get clean. “It’s very empowering for us to say, as a company, that our products can have that kind of impact.”

It is that ability to empathize that brought Lava Mae into existence—to imagine what it might be like to feel filthy but unable to do anything about it is a humanitarian exercise. For the people frequenting Sandoval’s mobile hygiene facilities, a shower can turn tides. As she says: “When you give people access to a shower, it leads to dignity and dignity can unlock opportunity. It is a vital first stepping stone.”