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Mobile shower units help homeless on streets of San Fransisco

Words by Tess Becker

Facing homelessness at its face value is already a difficult prospect. Things like warmth, consistent comfort, and even something as simple as a warm shower become hard to find.

That’s something that LavaMae wanted to address on the streets of California.

LavaMae was founded in 2014 and is a non-profit that got its start by building mobile showers for unhoused people in San Fransisco, soon after expanding into neighboring Oakland and Los Angeles. 

Today LavaMae – now LavaMaeX – has helped communities around the US and the world build mobile showers and other needs for their unhoused populations. 

According to LavaMae’s CEO Kris Kepler, it all started because the founder Doniece Sandoval wanted to help people in her San Fransisco community after coming across a woman who couldn’t find a place to clean herself. 

'She decided she wanted to start up a mobile shower unit'

“It just really kind of piqued her curiosity and she then went back and did some research to understand how many public showers there were in the city of San Francisco,” Kris tells Smiley News. “It turns out there were only 16 shower stalls for 7000 people.

“She decided that she wanted to start up a mobile shower unit as a way to bring it to the streets – so she took some old retired mini buses and converted them into private stalls, showers, and toilets and brought it to the streets of San Francisco.”

Their original goal was to help 30,000 Californians over the first five years – something that they’ve since burst through.

“That that was our main goal, but really, what's most important to us is what our mission is: to change the way the world sees and serves our unhoused neighbors,” Kris says. “So really treating everybody with dignity, love, compassion, and seeing them as the amazing people that they are and I think many of us take a shower for granted.”

When the word of what they were doing got out, cities, institutions, individuals, and communities around the world started asking them to expand to more locations. 

“I think we received over 4000 requests across 38 countries and that's when we started to think about what can we do to help other communities bring programs like ours to their own with what we call ‘radical hospitality’ with love and dignity and respect,” Kris says.

They got to work creating toolkits and hosting training on how to put together and deliver the showers as well as another of their services called Pop-Up Care Villages.

'The showers are the anchor or the gateway so people feel clean'

“Pop-Up Care Villages is where we bring a bunch of critical services to the streets to increase access, so they don't have to go to every single brick and mortar, building in order to receive things like clothing, job help, housing resources, those kinds of things,” Kris says.

Those villages turn into little events, not dissimilar to pop-up shops and farmer’s markets. Some of the services that show up are groups that give out clothing or even medical care for treating wounds and distributing Covid-19 vaccines. 

“The showers are the anchor or the gateway so people feel clean, and then they're oftentimes more receptive to the other services that are there for them,” Kris says.

Their goal now is to help other communities provide services to unhoused people in their communities around the world.

“Our five-year impact goal is to collectively serve 100,000 people by 2024 with the network of providers that are modeling our programs in their own communities,” Kris says. 

She and LavaMaeX as a whole just want to bring compassion to people experiencing homelessness.

“I think we need to look at people without homes, our neighbors, as people that deserve just as much love and respect as others that do have an official four walls over their head,” she says. “We're all two paychecks and a crisis away and I think having that level of compassion and understanding and empathy for people that are going through this right now is what we need.”

This article aligns with the UN SDG No Poverty.

This article aligns with the following UN SDGs