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Jan Lee headshot

Nonprofit Retrofits Buses as Mobile Showers for the Homeless

Words by Jan Lee

Homelessness is an endemic problem in most U.S. cities these days. The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) estimates that there are more than a half-million people sleeping on the streets each night. More than 200,000 of those individuals are people in families, and 13 percent of the nation’s homeless are veterans.

Adequate food, warmth and comfort are concerns we often think of when it comes to homelessness. But one of the greatest challenges that often goes unaddressed is access to showers and clean washroom facilities. That simple access is not only essential to self esteem, but has been declared a basic human right by the United Nations.

Yet, in burgeoning San Francisco alone, there are more than 6,000 homeless, 3,100 of which are forced to sleep on the street each night.  Sixteen free shower stalls are open to the homeless, and most of the showers are located in the downtown area, an impossible bus ride away for those who don't have the cash to use public transportation.

So a San Francisco organization made up of a consortium of nonprofits and concerned individuals have come up with a way to provide that access.

Lava Mae says the organization’s website, emerged as a result of “a cab drive and a zinger of a line delivered by a seasoned cabbie. ‘Welcome to the land of broken dreams’…

“Those seven words, a desire to bring about change, and a belief that mobile/moveable could be powerful set in motion” by providing a simple answer to a universal need for a place to bathe," says the website, is what Lava Mae is all about.

The organization’s name is coined from the Spanish for "wash me" (lavame). The founder, Doniece Sandoval along with other individuals, has garnered the support of more than 10 different organizations across the Bay Area to convert San Francisco Municipal Transit (MUNI) buses into mobile shower stations. MUNI has donated one bus so far, and said it will donate others if the pilot project works.

The bus has been retrofitted to contain three showers. Each shower has a toilet and a private area to dress. One of the showers will be specially designed for delousing needs – an often unavoidable side effect of sleeping on the streets or in makeshift shelters.

Even though the showers are free, there will still be costs associated with running the service. Lava Mae estimates that it will cost $100 every four days per bus, which is expected to be able to provide 500 showers per day. For San Francisco’s homeless population, that seems like a drop in the bucket. Lava Mae hopes, therefore, to have four buses up and running by the time the service gears up in March 2014. It’s also hoping to encourage similar mobile services in other cities.

The project, whose tagline is "delivering dignity one shower at a time," is being funded by donations Lava Mae receives on its website and through an Indiegogo campaign that just ended, in which it raised just over $58,000 of the $75,000 it will need to open. Another $7,000 was donated through the fiscal sponsor  Zero1, allowing the organization to meet its first goal. Its anticipated yearly budget will be $318,000.

Individuals interested in contributing to the project can contact the organization through its website.


Images courtesy of Lava Mae

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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