Doniece Sandoval knows she’s not ending homelessness. But the founder of San Francisco-based Lava Mae,
which operates mobile showers for people experiencing
homelessness, believes she’s offering them assistance and
respect. “Even people who don’t believe in providing
services to homeless people understand that if you can’t
get clean, you can’t get or keep a job or have a sense of
dignity,” she asserts.
Sandoval began Lava Mae by retrofitting public transport buses to house two complete bathrooms. Because
the startup can’t compete with the pay of bus drivers in
the area, it transitioned from operating buses to using a
Tundra truck donated by Toyota — which Sandoval can
drive without any special license — to cart them around.
Each has a wheelchair lift and operates five days a week,
six hours a day at the same site daily so people know
where to find it. Lava Mae provides all toiletries, and it
taps into fire hydrants for water.
The company partners with local service providers so
people in line for a shower can access other services
while waiting. “We operate from a perspective of rad-
ical hospitality,” explains Sandoval. “We learn people’s
names and their stories. We work really hard to ensure
they’re feeling better when they leave. It’s transformative.
They sometimes say, ‘You’re the first person to actually
engage with me in a week.’”
What’s been most surprising to Sandoval has been the
people she’s encountered. “We have families — two par-
ents who actually have jobs and have three school-age
children and are living in their car,” she says. “But they’re
not making a living wage. We see senior citizens in their
90s evicted and left on the street with no resources.
It’s the full gamut.”
Lava Mae has so far provided 13,000 showers to 2,100
people in San Francisco and has spurred community resi-
dents to help. “We see acts of kindness daily, from people
bringing sack lunches to the people we serve or doing
drives to create hygiene kits for them,” says Sandoval.
“I’m hopeful that with the momentum we’re creating,
we’ll solve this problem.”
Showering People with Dignity
If you can’t get clean, you
can’t get or keep a job or
have a sense of dignity.