Mobile showers for the homeless: Google’s lesson in Crapulent Social Responsibility

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Last week, as Yasha Levine’s article on Google’s fights with the LA homeless community was making the rounds, I found myself in the Tenderloin at 9am, standing in front of a former MUNI bus converted into showers and bathrooms for the homeless. The bus was painted blue and with eyelashes over its headlights and it was parked in its regular Wednesday and Friday location in front of GLIDE Church. There was a long list of names on the sign up sheet and about a dozen people waiting to clean up.

“When I found out there were only 16 showers available for the 3,500 homeless people in an affluent city like San Francisco, I found that to be a criminal lack of basic water and sanitation access, a human right. When I had the idea, I was obsessed with mobile food and I thought, ‘why not a bathroom?’”

So said Doniece Sandoval, the founder of Lava Mae. Sandoval was speaking to me as she went about the tasks associated with moving 42 people a day through two showers fed by a fire hydrant and parked at the curb, providing each person a spacious, hand-cleaned-and-sanitized bathroom and a safe, comfortable and dignified service.  

Lava Mae is the San Francisco non-profit which not only outfitted and operates the shower bus, but also navigated the partnership and permit process which knits them into the fabric of local homeless services and allows them to park their bus on a public road, washing the public with  public water (and donated Dr. Bronner’s soap) running off sudsy into public sewers.

Lava Mae’s advisory committee includes the director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement (HOPE), Bevan Dufty, and Kara Zordel, the Executive Director of the City’ Project Homeless Connect, along with the directors of a handful of partner non-profits. These relationships are core to what Lava Mae does and what it could do.

Three more buses are scheduled to come on line this year, with a tweaked layout for an improved user experience. Lava Mae has expanded rapaciously in recent months, from three to six employees. Sandoval said she is working on a revenue model that involves digital advertising on light-weight Indian smartglass.

All of this happened in large part thanks to a $ 100,000 grant from Google’s charitable arm, a grant which arose from the Google Impact Challenge and has just reached the end of its cycle…

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