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The lessons we learned serving unhoused people during the pandemic are key for any social enterprise

LavaMaeX rapidly revamped services in response to street conditions, learning lessons to help anyone innovate through a crisis.

The lessons we learned serving unhoused people during the pandemic are key for any social enterprise
[Photo: Barbara Munker/Picture Alliance/Getty Images]
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A few things I learned during the pandemic: What stay-at-home orders mean for people who don’t have housing. How to make a handwashing station out of a trash can. Why “set it and forget it” is a recipe for irrelevance. And when the flight safety instruction “put your own oxygen mask on before helping others” applies on the ground.

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LavaMaeX, the organization I lead, teaches people and organizations to bring mobile showers and other care services to the street. We also directly serve unhoused people in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. When COVID-19 hit hard in March, we had to suspend street programs while we updated our protocols and sourced personal protective equipment (PPE).

We felt defeated, unmoored, and fearful. But we all agreed on one thing: We would not leave the people we serve—our guests—behind.

New ways to serve: learning from the lockdown

One of our team members had a simple idea: We have a warehouse stocked with hygiene supplies for shower service—soap, conditioner, razors, toothbrushes, toothpaste, socks, and more. Why not assemble kits and bring them to places where unhoused people congregate?

A hygiene kit distributed in Los Angeles [Photo: courtesy LavaMaeX]
Two weeks after we suspended shower service, we began delivering about 250 kits a week to each of our locations in L.A., Oakland, and San Francisco. We spent most of our time canvasing the streets, asking basic questions: Where have our guests gone? What do they need? And most of all, how are they doing? What we found was heartbreaking. Many of their go-to resources for bare necessities like food, clothing, and drinkable water had disappeared overnight.

We listened to people’s needs and sought out in-kind donations so that we could add critical items to our kits. We also educated our guests on COVID-19 by placing public health pamphlets in the kits, along with notes of love and support. But we had more work to do in translating our observations into action.

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Life-saving innovation on the cheap: creating a DIY handwashing station

The educational materials we passed out advised frequent handwashing, but how do you keep your hands clean if you don’t have access to running water? That amenity—hard to access before the pandemic—disappeared for people on the streets with the closure of libraries, fast-food restaurants, and many parks.

Handwashing stations constructed using 32-gallon trash cans [Photo: courtesy LavaMaeX]
We found that large-capacity handwashing stations were either back-ordered or cost $2,000 to $3,000 a month to rent, if they were available. We decided to create a DIY handwashing station and fund organizations to bring units to their communities.

“We had a design session and sketched out a prototype and refined it over a few days,” recalls team member Sam Reardon. “Within the week, I was at the hardware store purchasing supplies and constructing our first handwashing station unit at our warehouse.”

Our refined design uses a 32-gallon trash can—anyone can make it using our free tool kit, which includes 3D printer models for key parts that are harder to come by.

A Lava Mae bus in San Francisco, circa 2015 [Photo: Barbara Munker/Picture Alliance/Getty Images]

What we learned about innovating through a crisis

The 2020 experience taught us several lessons that are relevant to any enterprise looking to build resilience and expand its impact.

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Set your team loose on your mission. A team that’s collaborative and dedicated to your mission will figure out a way to get through a crisis. Set the intent and the vision, and you’ll be amazed at the ideas people come up with. Think about how to best fulfill your mission in your current environment rather than how to execute tactics that may have become irrelevant.

Make room for creativity: I learned this year to be fluid in my own approach, and I’ve encouraged my team to adopt a design strategy for solving problems: observe, think, execute, revise. We also dedicate 10% of our time to innovating new products and services based on what we’re seeing on the streets.

Prioritize mental health: The work we do can take a psychological toll, and that’s true for any organization that serves people in crisis. We introduced mental health days this year that allowed team members to spontaneously take a day off if they needed a break, and that has made a real difference.

Engage partners and rally your community: Your partners will be there for you if you enlist them in your vision and give them a role they can naturally step into. Our core supporter, the Right to Shower, rallied fellow Unilever brands to provide crucial supplies for hygiene kits distributed throughout our network. Our in-kind donors stepped up as well. Design firm Gensler committed 250 hours of pro bono time to refining our designs. The University of California San Francisco Street Nursing team helped us provide essential services. If we hadn’t engaged these partners, the relationships might have faded away during the pandemic; instead, they’ve deepened.

Keep an eye on the future: In the midst of our pandemic pivot, we continued spending 70% of our staff time on training others. The end result is, we’re still on track to meet our five-year impact goal and we’ve added a whole new suite of services to our tool kit. We’ve also relaunched our shower service.

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The end result is a testament to the power of a group of passionately dedicated people deciding “we will solve this problem.” And that power is a resource any social enterprise can apply to the hard challenges that confront us.


Kris Kepler is CEO of LavaMaeX, a nonprofit that teaches people around the world to bring mobile showers and other essential care services to the street, where unhoused people need them most.