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The homeless 'care villages' spreading across the US

Words by Tess Becker

The organization, LavaMae X, builds mobile shower units across the US for people sleeping rough to clean themselves in privacy and safety. Since Smiley News first covered the initiative, they have stepped up their efforts and are rapidly spreading to new states in an unprecedented collaboration with other groups.

Together with homeless charities from across the US, they are running pop-up care villages, mini-events for community organizations to pool their resources for people experiencing homelessness. They offer everything from mental health and medical services to the aforementioned mobile showers. 

The events unite providers from local communities to support and pamper guests with much-needed free showers, haircuts, massages, medical and dental care, legal advice, and employment assistance. They often give away free clothing and other essentials, accompanied by live music and free meals.

“I love PUCVs. They’re joyous. They create a venue where organizations that normally don’t come together can connect. They’re a moving experience for the service providers and volunteers. And they can produce lasting benefits for guests,” says LavaMaeX CEO Kris Kepler.

LavaMaeX’s own PUCVs in downtown Oakland in 2022 yielded more than 550 referrals to housing, mental health, and employment aid.

These PUCVs are expanding around the country as non-profits adopt the model to help more unhoused people in communities far and wide. 

Organizations hosting events include the BeHeard Movement, Aspire of Life, and BeTheChangeYYC.

Each organization is adapting the model to suit the needs of different communities. For example, BeHear, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, teamed up with local organizations and companies to host an event promoted by Tulsa officials.

City council members, local media, Starbucks, Walmart, food trucks, ministerial organizations, and a neighborhood association all gathered to offer food, music, laundry services, massages, showers, bike repairs, food stamps, and more.

The event brought together 580 guests, 67 partners, and 55 volunteers. Evan J. Dougoud, BeHeard’s founder says it was the first time all these community organizations and supportive city officials had come together in one place. 

“It was like a breath of fresh air, the energy,” he says.

For Aspire of Life, the event raised well-needed funds for mobile shower units in Omaha, Nebraska.

Elsewhere, BeTheChange, in Calgary, Canada, held an event that attracted over 600 people. 

Event co-coordinator Bill Zheng discovered LavaMaeX’s PUCV model on YouTube in August 2021 and accessed the toolkit. Later, he volunteered with BeTheChangeYYC, whose staff walk the streets of Calgary four nights a week with essentials for people experiencing homelessness to provide them with resources.

When one of these staff members brought up the idea of a grassroots collaboration, Zheng had a lightbulb moment. It was in that moment that Zheng, now a nursing student, came across the PUCV model.

The community collaboration event they hosted brought together people from all walks of life together, including the community’s indigenous population.

“The indigenous drumming was the glue of the whole event,” Zheng says. “People were laughing, dancing, singing and rapping, and everybody cheered our grassroots partner Sobercrew to keep on drumming!”

The event allowed many community organizations to gain exposure and community engagement. 

BeTheChangeYYC partnered with SafeLink Alberta, a local harm reduction agency, and secured two grants to fund the event. It welcomed a newcomer to the sector: A Chinese immigrant organization, ECSSEN Career School, which will attend, delivering services to people who don’t speak English and raising awareness for its new Chinese-language crisis hotline. Zheng, a former ECSSEN volunteer, is excited about deepening the school’s ties to the city’s greater social service community.

The events are creating a ripple effect, sparked by the original LavaMae model. Communities are given the know-how and support to implement these programs to help the people around them. 

“We’re working to change the way the world sees and serves people experiencing homelessness, and a genuinely fun event that forges new connections in tandem with offering real-time services accelerates that process,” Kepler says. 

Charity check-in

At Smiley Movement, we like to elevate the work of charities across the world. Here are three charities whose causes align with the themes in this article.

Beacon Food Forest. This is one of the largest food forests in the country. Find out more and support them here

American Forests. A conservation organization focused on preserving and protecting American forests. Support them here.

Cultural Survival. They are an indigenous-led nonprofit focused on empowering indigenous Americans and helping the planet. Find out more

This article aligns with the UN SDG No Poverty.

This article aligns with the following UN SDGs