Lava Mae provides mobile showers for homeless people

Funded by Google and Indiegogo, a San Francisco nonprofit turns old buses into much-needed shower facilities for those living on the streets.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters/File
A homeless man begs for money in the financial district of San Francisco. Lava Mae, a shower service mounted on a bus, aims to help the homeless keep themselves clean. The nonprofit's name comes from the Spanish term meaning 'wash me.'

With a big gift from Google and a lot of little ones through Indiegogo, a fledgling nonprofit in San Francisco has converted an old city bus into a mobile shower facility for the homeless.

"Because we’re in a bus, we can go to where the people are," says Doniece Sandoval, the founder of Lava Mae.

The service takes its name from the Spanish word lávame, which means "wash me." Ms. Sandoval grew up in the South, where it’s not uncommon for people to have two first names, so the word became Lava Mae.

The idea for the hygiene service grew out of an encounter Ms. Sandoval had with a homeless woman who cried that she’d never be clean again. Around the same time, Ms. Sandoval read that the city’s transit system was decommissioning some old buses.

"My fascination with everything mobile-food just made me think, ‘Oh, my gosh, those buses,’ " says Ms. Sandoval. "We could convert those into bathrooms on wheels."

The need for Lava Mae’s service is great. According to Ms. Sandoval, San Francisco has 16 to 20 shower stalls for the 3,500 people who live on the city’s streets.

Converting the donated bus into a mobile shower facility cost $75,000. Google contributed $100,000, and an Indiegogo campaign this past fall brought in slightly more than $51,000.

In focus groups, people who are homeless said their primary concerns about bathing were safety and privacy. So the bus has two shower areas, each with its own entrance. After one person leaves the shower area another can enter.

The bus has been on the road three days a week since June during a testing phase. After Lava Mae begins full-time service in the spring, the bus will provide an estimated 12,000 showers annually. The group plans to have a second bus in service by March.

Ms. Sandoval says mobile showers are a cost-efficient way of providing hygiene services throughout the city in light of the city’s "astronomical" real-estate costs.

"Every nonprofit we know that doesn’t own their own property is terrified about the time when their lease comes up. Many of them are worried about getting displaced from their homes," she says. "By going mobile, we don’t have to worry about that."

This article originally appeared on the website of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Lava Mae provides mobile showers for homeless people
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today