How We're Bringing Showers to the Homeless

One day two years ago, I happened to pass a young woman sitting on the street. She was crying and saying over and over to herself that she'd never be clean. I live in San Francisco, where it's impossible to be unaware of the homeless.

One day two years ago, I happened to pass a young woman sitting on the street. She was crying and saying over and over to herself that she’d never be clean. I live in San Francisco, where it’s impossible to be unaware of the homeless. For years, I’d wanted to do more than volunteer or donate to an organization. But it wasn’t until that day that I took action, inspired by the words of the young woman.

I knew her challenges were deeper than I could imagine, but a light bulb went on in my head as I thought about how I might be able to help her get superficially clean. That night I began to research shower resources for San Francisco’s homeless and was shocked by what I learned: there are approximately 16 shower stalls for the more than 3,000 men, women, and children that make the streets of this city home.

At the same time, the food truck craze was at its height. If we could put gourmet food on trucks and take it anywhere, I thought, why not showers and toilets?

I did some research and found I wasn’t the first person to think about this. There are about half a dozen mostly small communities around the country—all led by faith-based groups—using converted mobile homes and horse trailers and, in some cases, even commercial shower units. I talked to all of them and they told me stories of transformation; that the homeless using their mobile showers “felt human for the first time in a long time” or “were recovering their sense of dignity.” I thought, if they could do it, so could we—and so our project, Lava Mae, was born.

What hit me next was the stark reality that I had no experience with the homeless and that if I didn’t engage the organizations that were doing this well, I would fail.

My first chat was with Jennifer Friedenbach from the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. I was terrified she’d be dubious about the idea and about my inexperience and general naiveté about this issue. Instead, her response was the exact opposite. And she, like every other homeless service provider I talked to afterwards, said the same thing: how can we help you get this off the ground?

Since then, we’ve continued to build support and partnership with nonprofits serving the homeless.

We’ve also secured the donation of retired MUNI buses and the authorization from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to access to water via fire hydrants, all because of Bevan Dufty at the Mayor’s Office of HOPE (Housing, Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement), who has been instrumental to our progress.

After our IndieGoGo campaign, we hope to be on the streets of San Francisco by early 2014, providing upwards of 80 showers per day. By 2015, we’ll have four buses on the road offering 240 showers per day five to six days a week. That amounts to more than 1440 opportunities for the city’s homeless to get clean.

The bigger vision, however, is to share this with communities around the world. We’re working to create a replicable model that will guide anyone interested in launching something similar. We’ve already had interest from people in other cities throughout California, Atlanta, and even as far away as strife-riddled Cairo, Egypt.

This project will be featured in GOOD's series Push for Good—our guide to crowdsourcing creative progress.

Image courtesy of Andrea Starr Reese

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