Showers and bathrooms on bus wheels for the homeless

In San Francisco, decommissioned city buses are now bringing something to homeless people that everyone else often takes for granted: a hot shower and use of the bathroom, in privacy and safety.

The converted personal hygiene units are the brainchild of Doniece Sandoval, who was moved to action by the plight of a local homeless woman crying to herself that she would never get physically clean. In a city with only about 16 shower stalls for 3,500 homeless San Franciscans, the broader unmet need was obvious. It was also jarring, given the overall affluence of the city in the wealthiest country in the world.

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Doniece’s resulting epiphany, that access to water and sanitation is fundamental to our well-being and dignity, is at the heart of the initiative. Also core to the program’s mission are two insights, based on conversations with homeless people. One, homelessness kills privacy, because it requires spending one’s time entirely in the public eye. Two, women and LGBT people are at high risk of attacks at showering facilities. As Doniece explains, with hygiene comes dignity, and with dignity comes opportunity—being able to apply for jobs, secure housing, and maintain personal health.

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As of the end of 2015, Doniece’s nonprofit organization Lava Mae is working to provide 50,000 showers per year. The conversion of the buses also helps solve a different dilemma facing the city: what to do with the old diesel city buses when they’re replaced by hybrid buses. The transformation of each bus into mobile showers and toilets is a complicated challenge, a feat of engineering and resourcefulness that Lava Mae has made possible.

For more information, check out the Lava Mae website, the article “Converting Buses to Showers for the Homeless” at KQED, and this video showcasing Lava Mae as a winner of an innovation in philanthropy award.