Of all the indignities endured by the homeless, chief among them is living among the filth of the streets often without the possibility of a shower. That reality was driven home to San Francisco resident Doniece Sandoval during an encounter with a young homeless woman. “She was crying, and she kept saying over and over to herself that she would never be clean,” Sandoval explains. “I knew that her words meant a lot of things I couldn’t fathom.” She thought to herself, “Maybe on the superficial level I could do something.”
Sandoval began researching what kind of opportunities San Francisco’s homeless have to take a shower. The facts were bleak: The city’s 3,000-plus homeless share about 16 showers. All but one of the facilities with a shower are clustered in the heart of the city, which means hundreds of homeless people would have to travel to access them. “They’re not giving away free bus tickets,” she notes.
Sandoval’s solution? To bring showers directly to the homeless through a fleet of municipal buses, renovated to house two private showers. Sandoval says she’s not the first to come up with the idea: About a dozen cities around the country have projects that bring mobile showers to the homeless, including Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland. Speaking with organizers of those projects in other communities only emphasized the importance of such work: “They all told me the same thing,” she says, “stories of transformation–that the homeless that they work with said…they felt human for the first time in a long time.”
Local nonprofits have supported the project, which she named Lava Mae (a play on lávame, “wash me,” in Spanish), as well as the city of San Francisco, which has offered four municipal buses. The pilot bus will arrive in late October, and Sandoval is raising money on Indiegogo to add showers, drainage, and lighting. She estimates the first bus will cost $75,000 to makeover, but “once we get the first design down and have sort of a cookie cutter, the cost will drop.”
She’s also hoping to recruit volunteer drivers who would move the bus into a location that a partner organization has provided, leave it there for eight hours, then move it back to its parking spot at the end of the day.
Homeless women in particular are at a risk for sexual violence, and Sandoval insists that the showers will be safe for those using them. The bus design includes two private shower areas that are separately accessible– one from the front of the bus, the other from the back. Volunteers would help make sure that only families went into the showers together.
Sandoval says that “we had a little bit of a flurry of interest” since the project kicked off, from as far away as Egypt. If the pilot’s successful, she hopes to “ultimately create a model that we can share with communities–especially big cities.”
“For me this is about dignity, and it’s also about human rights.”