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Coming Right Up -- Showers To Go

Trish Richman

There are roughly 6,400 homeless people in San Francisco. According to Laura Guzman, Director of the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, one of the biggest challenges they face is finding public restrooms.

“I remember when we opened, the conversation was all about poop on the street,” says Guzman.  “We used to talk about ‘poop and needles,’ we call it. But it’s critical that the community understands – if there is no bathroom access, people are going to poop on the streets.”

Nowadays the conversation isn’t about just keeping the sidewalks clean, but how to provide more showers for those without homes. Now one of the cleanest forms of transportation is about to hit the streets.

At the morning shower period at  the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, a drop-in facility for San Francisco’s homeless, the bright yellow and light green painted walls make for a cheery atmosphere. A chess game is underway at one table, and along another wall a few people move things around in lockers.

One young man, James Quiet, goes to the sign-up desk to take a shower and is handed a towel. This one doesn’t have holes in it, unlike some of the others. He enters the men’s restroom, where two shower stalls occupy the right-hand corner.

Quiet lives in a shelter on Bryant Street. To get to his fifteen-minute shower here, he has to take a bus or walk thirty minutes. Some days, by the time he arrives, he has to wait nearly an hour for his turn to bathe. But, he says, it’s worth it.

“We might have appointments, we might have job interviews,” Quiet says. “Just being in the general public, you want to have a good fragrance and be confident with whatever you gotta do with your day.”

But if he doesn’t have the time to get there … or to wait for a stall, he can’t do it.

Now, this is not an issue is you’ve got a permanent place to stay. Doniece Sandoval has one – she works in marketing and P.R. – but she recalls the moment when she realized she wanted to help those who don’t have a home.

“About two years ago, I was walking down the street, and I passed by a woman who was crying and who was saying over and over again that she would never be clean,” says Sandoval. “I thought, ‘Maybe I can figure out how to help her get physically clean.’”

That day Sandoval discovered that more than 3,000 San Franciscans are sleeping on the streets – not even in shelters or cars. Another number was even more shocking. Outside of the shelters and single room occupancy hotels, the city and a handful of non-profits provide only seven places where a homeless person can take a shower.

“Around the same time, the whole mobile food craze was at its peak, and I thought, ‘If we can put gourmet food on wheels, why not showers and toilets?’,” says Sandoval.

Sandoval’s idea was to turn old buses into showers. So she asked the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to give her one of its retired buses to transform into a prototype for her project, which she named “Lava Mae.”

“And you will have in there a stainless steel shower, a toilet, a sink, a private changing room and storage area,” Sandoval explains.

Sandoval has spent the last two years envisioning what this shower-on-a-bus scenario would look like: the bus will hold two shower stalls, one wheelchair-accessible. When it’s up and running, the Lava Mae bus will drive to drop-in centers where homeless people already receive some services, but not showers.  Its Saturday stop will be outside the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, which is closed on weekends.

“If you look at the map of where showers are located versus where the homeless are in terms of their location in the city, it’s a very concentrated area of brick-and-mortar showers, really hard to access,” says Sandoval, “so we’re trying to partner with people or organizations who are as far-flung as possible to reach the people who have limited access.”

Lava Mae will operate six days a week on a regular schedule, with stops in front of a different drop-in center each day. Besides being strategic about where the bus stops, because support from the neighbors is crucial, Lava Mae will also need to be ready for heavy use.

“We know that we’ll probably do two full days in the Tenderloin, because even though most of the shower facilities are there, there’s still a massive shortage,” Sandoval says.

The retrofitted bus will roll out around March of next year, but all kinds of donations are needed, like soap and shampoo, which Sandoval hopes to get from local companies.

“We’re looking at luxury hotels who discard their gently used towels because they have discerning clients,” says Sandoval. “And so we’re hoping that we can be the beneficiary of those types of things.”

Although most of Lava Mae’s funding is coming from private donors, the city is providing the Muni bus and water from fire hydrants, thanks to the Public Utilities Commission. The on-demand water heaters on the bus will pump out hot water for the showers.

Back at the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, without Lava Mae rolling yet, showers are in high demand.

In the past year, homeless clients took a total of 13,155 showers; that’s about a thousand showers a month. And access to a private shower stall could make a big difference for people like Sampson.

“I’m not a full trans-sexual from female to male, and I think that puts me in a dangerous category,” says Sampson.

There are plenty of reasons to want privacy while you’re bathing, and when you’re homeless, there are few chances to be out of the public eye. Whether it’s on a bus or indoors, Richard Day says taking a shower while others wait their turn will never leave enough time for some things:

“No singing now; you don’t have time to sing here. You just gotta get in and get out. No singing!” says Day, with a laugh. “Now in a tub, it’d be different. They don’t have tubs here; I might sing in a tub.”

Well, buses with bathtubs may never hit the road, but buses with showers are on their way.

This story orginally aired on Wednesday April 9th, 2014.

Lava Mae has raised $75,000 dollars to transform one Muni bus, and they plan to remodel three more. The first San Francisco shower facility on wheels will visit under-served neighborhoods like Dogpatch, Bayview and parts of the Western Addition. For more information, go to www.lavamae.org

Crosscurrents homelessness