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Social Issues
This Retrofitted Bus Is Providing A Safe Place To Shower For San Francisco’s Homeless
July 7, 2014
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(Photo: Kena Frank/Lava Mae)

The San Francisco Bay Area has a significant homeless population — and there are only seven facilities in the whole city providing showers to that population, leading to long waiting lists. That's what prompted Doniece Sandoval to launch Lava Mae, a non-profit initiative that renovates old public transit buses into mobile shower facilities.

The project has been two years in the making, and raised $58,000 US in crowdfunding last year. The city donated four decommissioned vehicles for the project, and the first bus to be retrofitted — at a cost of $75,000 US — hit the streets in late June.

Here's how it works: the bus pulls up to a partnering organization and hooks into a city fire hydrant. The water is piped through an onboard heater and distributed to two completely private shower pods, which each include a stall, toilet and sink. The grey water then gets disinfected and drained into sidewalk catch basins.

To get the project off the ground, Lave Mae partnered with the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, a local non-profit that doesn't itself have shower facilities to offer its clients. And by building the facility on a bus, the organization can avoid some of the costs associated in providing services in a city with sky-high rents and continual development.

"Lava Mae is not about ending homelessness," Sandoval says in the launch video below. "What we are about is providing hygiene, because we believe that hygiene provides dignity, and dignity opens up opportunity."

Now that the prototype bus is providing regular shower facilities in San Francisco, Lava Mae hopes to expand into different parts of the city. When all four buses are running by 2015, they estimate they'll be able to provide 2,000 showers per week. Eventually, the organization hopes to act as a model for similar projects around the world where need for sanitation is great.

“We’re at the point now where we’re talking with about 25 different communities, both globally and in the U.S., that are interested in taking our model and creating it in their communities, and they all want us to work with them,” Sandoval told Government Technology. “It’s kind of ad-hoc right now, but the vision is to create Lava Mae in a box so that they will be able to go to a platform and download the resources, and we would be able to help them as well.”

And for another look at the problem of sanitation for the homeless, see this 2012 editorial in the LA Times.

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