Non-Profit Turns Old City Buses into Mobile Shower Stations for the Homeless

One of the dire problems faced by homeless people across America is the shortage of public showers and toilets. Unofficially dubbed one of the homeless capitals of the nation, San Francisco’s 6,500 homeless have access to only about 16 to 20 shower stalls. But Lava Mae, a San Francisco nonprofit, is trying to make a difference by converting retired city buses into mobile shower stations.

Lava Mae is the brainchild of former marketing executive Doniece Sandoval, who, moved by the plight of the homeless around her, quit her job to help them. “One day I passed a woman in the street and she was very dirty and basically crying, and I heard her say that she would never be clean.” Sandoval told ABC News. “There’s obviously a lot of layers but I was wondering what her opportunities were to actually get clean.”


Her second trigger was a Vietnam war veteran, ‘Mr. Earl’, who was evicted and ended up on the street. “The last time I saw him was about six months ago,” Sandoval said. “He was just in really bad shape. We realised this shouldn’t be happening. These are human beings.”

So she ditched her career and started Lava Mae in 2013, based on one simple belief: “Everyone has the right to be clean.” The project started off with just one bus donated by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which hit the road in March, 2014. It proved to be a success, and several unused buses have been transformed into mobile showers since then.


Today, Lava Mae is a strong team of individuals who believe that “access to showers and toilets shouldn’t be a luxury.” They argue that unless the homeless are given the chance to get clean, they cannot gain access to jobs or housing, or maintain health and wellbeing. So going mobile gives them the flexibility to reach the homeless wherever they’re scattered across the city. Their trademark blue buses tap into city hydrants to bring cleanliness and hygiene to the homeless, “one shower at a time.” Each bus is equipped to provide 2,000 showers a week.

“By repurposing retired transportation buses, we transform existing resources into vehicles for good,” the non-profit’s website states. “Showers on wheels won’t solve homelessness, but they do fill a massive gap in available services. Lava Mae seeks to serve those who lack access to what should be basic human rights – showers and sanitation.”


Lava Mae currently operates five days a week in five neighborhoods across San Francisco – the Main Public Library in Civic Center, YWAM in the Tenderloin, API Wellness in the Tenderloin, Most Holy Redeemer Church in the Castro, and Mission Neighborhood Resource Center. They run entirely on donations – cash or hygiene supplies – and offer volunteering opportunities to interested individuals. And they’re working on turning their model into an A-Z toolkit for other communities to replicate. The affiliate program will launch in 2016.


Photos: Lava Mae/Facebook

Sources: SF Chronicle, ABC News