San Francisco Transformed Buses Into Mobile Showers for the Homeless

Over 8,000 homeless people live in the city of San Francisco, most of whom have extremely limited access to water and sanitation facilities. In fact, there are only 16 showers available for all the men, women and children living on the street. Until now.


Lava Mae, derived from the phrase “wash me” in Spanish, was founded by PR executive Doniece Sandoval, after an exchange with a woman living on the street who was distraught about not being able to clean herself for several days. Severely touched by this exchange, Sandoval decided to do something about it. After hearing about the SFMTA retiring their old diesel city buses, she and a handful of volunteers retrofitted a decommissioned bus with two showers and two toilets, offering mobile hygiene services to homeless people in the Tenderloin and Mission District.


Collaborating with both the public and private sector is vital to Lava Mae’s success. Together with the San Francisco Department of Health, SF Department of Public Works, SF Municipal Transportation Agency and the Mayor’s Office, along with companies like Google, Dr. Bronner’s, Kohler and Laundry Locker, Lava Mae is provided with goods and services, and the support and funding to make it all possible. Additionally, as a finalist for the 2014 Google Impact Challenge, Lava Mae received $100,000 to begin funding the project. Lava Mae also works closely with a range of local nonprofits to expand their reach, from drop-in centers and health clinics to post-probation re-entry programs.


The bus houses two showers (one handicapped) and two toilets. Though there is room for more showers, each bus has only two to maximize safety and privacy. In shelters, it is difficult for families, women, and LGBTQ individuals to feel completely safe bathing or using the restroom. There is also an intercom and emergency call button system in case any of the guests require assistance. Guests have access to soap and socks. For every private shower, guests are given soap and socks as well as a hygiene kit to take away with them.


By the end of this year, Lava Mae will scale from one bus (which can offer 12,500 showers per year) to four buses, totaling to 50,000 mobile showers per year.


This project has captured the attention of people around the world, many whom are inspired to create a similar program in their own cities. In 2016, Lava Mae Global will launch to respond to the hundreds of requests for help from communities across the globe seeking to replicate the service.

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