How one organization turned a hot shower into a hub of radical hospitality

LaveMaeX CEO Kris Kepler tells us about an organization that leverages the power of hospitality, hope, and empathy to create a gateway out of homelessness. Episode 7 of the “People Making a Difference” podcast. 

LavaMaeX: Hot showers and radical hospitality

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Courtesy of LavaMaeX
Kris Kepler is CEO of LavaMaeX, a California-based organization that provides showers and community services to those who are unhoused.

LavaMaeX, says CEO Kris Kepler, is a nonprofit organization designed to provide people experiencing homelessness with both the hardware (a mobile shower) and the “software” (empathy and hope). The shower is often the first step in restoring dignity and rekindling optimism. It’s what Ms. Kepler calls “radical hospitality,” a mindset of forming a relationship with a guest rather than simply making a transaction.

After a shower, the guest may avail themselves of more than a dozen services in the Pop-Up Care Village, ranging from a haircut to a job interview. 

“We’re not just showing up, one month at a time. It’s weekly. And having that consistency and that compassion, and establishing that relationship with guests, it makes a world of difference,” Ms. Kepler says. It’s “really important for us to stay connected and show them our love.”

You might have seen the Monitor story we wrote about Lava Mae on June 4, 2019. We wanted to check in with this organization, and take you a little deeper with an audio interview.

Episode transcript

[Music]

Kris Kepler: Our vision is a world where hygiene is treated as a human right, and to change the way the world sees and serves our unhoused neighbors. The more people that we can get enlisted in our mission, the more access to hygiene there will be throughout the world.

Dave Scott: The hygiene Kris Kepler is talking about is a nice hot shower. That’s something the homeless rarely have. And it’s what her California-based organization, LavaMaeX, is providing to thousands living on the streets of Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. But LavaMae, which [sounds like lavame,] Spanish for “wash me,”  isn’t just about hot showers. Yes, they have these cool, custom-built shower trucks, which are set up to handle several private showers at a time. But there’s more. When a shower truck or a shower trailer shows up in a neighborhood, there are also tables manned by people providing haircuts, job interviews, medical care, meals, legal aid, housing services, and even live music. The mobile shower has become a hub of what LavaMaeX calls Pop-up Care Villages.

Another thing that takes this beyond a simple shower is what LavaMaeX calls, “radical hospitality.” It’s a mentality of forming a relationship with a guest rather than simply making a transaction.

Welcome to “People Making a Difference,” a podcast about people who are, step-by-step making a better world. 

I’m Dave Scott.

Welcome, Kris.

Kris Kepler: Hi, thank you for having me.

Dave Scott: Thanks for being here. So Kris, when the pandemic started to shut everything down last year, most unhoused people stayed in their encampments. They worried that they risked infection if they sought a shower or went to a shelter. How have you been able to practice your trademark radical hospitality when people are trying to keep their distance from you?

Kris Kepler: When the pandemic hit in March of last year, we had to look at our direct service programs. Those programs include delivering mobile showers in Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco, as well as our Pop-up Care Villages, which brings many, many people, about 600 people, to one location at a time.

So we began to assemble COVID hygiene kits. And those are things [such as] not only hand sanitizer and masks, but we also began to add things like water, food – really, the essentials. And [to] go into encampments, and deliver to our guests and check on them and make sure they were OK.

Another way to serve – that was outside of what we had typically done before, that’s really made an impact – is by showing up and continuing to establish a relationship with them and making them know that they’re not left behind, that we still care. So that was really important for us to stay connected and, and show them our love.

Dave Scott: That’s great. And I read somewhere that you actually included notes of love and support within those kits as well.

Kris Kepler: Yes. Yes. And what was really important for us [is that] we spend a lot of time canvassing the neighborhood, seeing where people are, asking them what they need. If we see somebody that has a dog, we’ll say, “OK, tomorrow I’ll come back and bring you dog food to help your dog.” A lot of it is just showing up as I mentioned, but just talking and saying, “How are you? What else do you need? Are there any other resources we can get you?” It’s important to be consistent with where you go so people know you. We’re not just showing up, one month at a time. It’s weekly. And having that consistency and that compassion, and establishing that relationship with guests, it makes the world of difference.

Dave Scott: So, what did you learn from your response to the pandemic this past year? Are there lessons that your team is carrying forward? You mentioned innovation. But are there other lessons that you’ve learned  this year?

Kris Kepler: I would say the first thing is really to look at what problems are happening now and be nimble and responsive to solving those as you see them, as it still fits within your mission. One example of that is as we were out there, there was nowhere for you to wash your hands, let alone take a shower or go to the bathroom. Here we are giving out soap and telling them they need to wash their hands – and there’s nowhere to do that. For us, that was one of our big innovations from last year. What can we do? Let’s create a DIY hand-washing [station].

Dave Scott: These Do-It-Yourself hand-washing stations were more than just little squirt bottles setup on tables. Since large hand-washing stations were in short supply or on back order or cost thousands of dollars to rent or buy, the LavaMaeX team went to work inventing their own low-cost model. The result? Thirty-two gallon trash cans filled with soap solution and a hand pump.

And that, Kris told me, was one of the lessons of this past year: Stay nimble and innovate and collaborate. I asked her what she learned about partnering with other organizations. She mentioned working with the University of California, San Francisco, or UCSF.

Kris Kepler: What we did is we really reached out to our partners at UCSF, and even to in-kind donors, and said, “What can we do together?” I think UCSF is a great example because their street nursing team tabled with us, providing medical care at shower service before the pandemic. And then they quickly became our partner to walk on foot into encampments alongside us. And a lot of that is really due to the passion and the persistence of just not leaving your guests behind.

Dave Scott: In 2019, shortly after the Monitor wrote about LavaMae, the organization added in X to their name to symbolize a shift. They decided to emphasize teaching others about radical hospitality for the unhoused. They started by creating a hygiene toolkit to help others. And I asked Kris about what prompted that shift.

Kris Kepler: We had about 4,500 requests for people that wanted us to bring our services to their communities. And that’s where we said, “There’s a huge opportunity to teach others how to do this work and recognize that the best solutions come from the communities themselves.”

So we actually met our impact goal of serving 30,000 Californians [by] about September of 2019. That’s what really prompted us to really open up the hood and say, “What is our true next step?” And with so many requests – so many people who had already downloaded this toolkit – we knew that we had something special to share with others and that the need was so great.

So for us, the next goal is to get other service providers to host and run programs modeled after ours, meaning mobile showers, Pop-up Care Villages, and hand-washing stations. To deploy those programs and serve 100,000 people collectively by 2024.

Dave Scott: So when you’re teaching radical hospitality – and even the nuts and bolts of setting up a mobile shower – what are some of the most important lessons that you’re sharing?

Kris Kepler: When people are on the streets, they are seen as invisible and their dignity is stripped from them. They are not even seen as humans. And so part of what we do is we teach people how to rehumanize those that are on the streets. It really starts with simple, simple things like, a “Hello, how are you?” Learning their name. “How was your day?” So part of it is how you interact with guests, and making them feel seen and acknowledged. The second part of that is really training our providers on how to specifically deliver the service in terms of keeping it clean and having hygiene kits and making it feel like it is not a transactional experience.

This is all about relationships. When you approach it from a relational standpoint, then you build that trust and you’re able to say, “Hey, there’s this service provider now” like the nurses or food assistance or housing assistance. It’s really a gateway into helping them find other resources that they need because they trust you. So it’s about really providing a dignified human experience. It’s just like us, right? That’s what I tell everybody all the time. They’re just like us: you go in the shower, you feel better when you come out. And that really opens up your mind. A big part of that is the relationship and staying consistent with the service and really connecting with guests on a deeper level than just getting them in and getting them out.

Dave Scott: I want to pick up on that gateway idea too, because, essentially a shower seems like an act of compassion. It’s about dignity, but it’s also sort of a band-aid. I read on your website that the mobile showers help people “moving through homelessness.” And I love that phrasing because the statement just connotes hope, it assumes progress. So talk about that gateway. And how does your organization support moving through or even out of homelessness?

Kris Kepler: Right. So our main goal is not to end homelessness. I mean, that would be amazing. But for us, it’s about providing that love and hope and giving people the resources to make that next step when they’re ready.  So part of that is not only through our mobile showers, but through our Pop-up Care Villages where you bring service providers from legal to food, to housing, and say, “Here’s a loving, supportive environment. Here [are] resources for you to use.” But we don’t have any control if they’re going to ultimately get housing or not. But we can bring people together to make that happen and make it accessible, instead of having them run to every part of the city to find these resources that are so critical.

Dave Scott: That makes total sense. So you’re teaching and partnering with organizations around this country and, ultimately, around the world. But you’re still maintaining on-the-ground work in three cities in California. Why is that on the ground effort so important?

Kris Kepler: Oh, it’s critical. Staying connected to our guests is critical for us. It’s in our DNA. It is what this entire team loves to do is to serve. So we didn’t want to just say, “We’re teaching and training and not serving.” That’s just not who we are. So it was just critical to stay in touch and help them.

The second piece is we needed a way or a vehicle to model radical hospitality to those that we’re teaching and training. For us to really be effective, we need to be able to have a place that anybody can visit in LA or in San Francisco or in Oakland to say, “Hey, come watch us in action. This is what it looks like.” Because for us, when you see it, that’s where it clicks. And so it’s a very, very important part of the teaching and training process for us to be able to do that and to continue to model this and stay connected.

Dave Scott: That sounds really smart. You and your team are constantly witnessing great human hardship, and progress can be slow. So how do you personally stay inspired when you’re facing these kinds of things?

Kris Kepler: Yeah, it’s really tough, I will say that. It’s heartbreaking. We are a group of dedicated, passionate people that absolutely love to serve. And every time we’re out there, there’s always these connections and these smiles and these stories. So this entire team feeds off of the energy that we get by serving. So I feel like when we see them, and they smile and you crack a joke with them, it makes our day. And we’re hoping that it makes theirs and that’s a huge driver for us.

Dave Scott: You spend a lot of time with people who are unhoused. What advice would you give to listeners when they encounter someone experiencing homelessness? What do you think would be most helpful in that sort of situation?

Kris Kepler: One of the phrases that I like to use with people is “We’re all two paychecks and a crisis away.” I think you have to really take a hard look at when you see something like an encampment or you see somebody on the street, do not assume that they are drug addicted or have mental health issues. They are someone’s mother, or brother, or sister. And you need to be able to empathize with that, and say, “It could be me,” and ask, “Do you need anything?” Even just looking them in the eye and acknowledging them. I think the No. 1 thing for us is we don’t assume anything. We have zero judgment. We just understand. “What do you need and how can I help?” And don’t be afraid to say, “Hello” and help somebody. For all you know, even a conversation like that could save them from depression or save them from thinking about committing suicide, because it’s really, really isolating and lonely.

So I know I’m talking about this in a roundabout way, but the No. 1 goal is saying, “I can see myself in you. What do you need? How can I help?”

Dave Scott: When I asked Kris what her organization is planning for the year ahead. She said they’ve started working on designing a pop-up shower, innovating and iterating on a simple, inexpensive shower that can be quickly set up in a homeless encampment or at a disaster recovery site. And she talked about a new section of the LavaMaeX website, a platform where some 400 organizations have already signed up to partner and work together.

Kris Kepler: I think right now what this entire world needs is community and coming together and seeing how we can support one another. And even you asking yourself as an individual, “What does community mean to me? And what does that look like?” Our vision is a world where hygiene is treated as a human right, and to change the way the world sees and serves our unhoused neighbors. The more people that we can get enlisted in our mission, the more access to hygiene there will be throughout the world.

Dave Scott: Thank you, Kris. This has been great. I really appreciate it. I really appreciate the work you’re doing too.

Kris Kepler: Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate your time.

Dave Scott: Our guest today was Kris Kepler, CEO of LavaMaeX. What struck me about the work Kris and her team are doing is their emphasis on radical hospitality – that is, treating everyone, especially those without a roof over their heads, with compassion, empathy, and dignity.

And here’s this week’s challenge: Say hello to someone who’s experiencing homelessness. You don’t have to give them money, just your attention. As Kris said, “Treat them with respect,” and a touch of empathy. Talk to them. And listen. Then, call me and tell me how it went. Call me at (617) 450-2410 and leave me a voice message about what happened. That’s (617) 450-2410.

Thanks for listening to “People Making a Difference,” a podcast about people who are, step-by-step, making a better world.

Produced by The Christian Science Monitor. Copyright 2021.

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