Doniece Sandoval, having seen the conditions of people living on the street, founded Lava Mae, an organization that provides buses retrofitted with showers and bathrooms for the homeless. For her efforts, she was one of six to be recognized at Hispanicize’s Positive Impact Awards, the annual gathering of Latino journalists, tech entrepreneurs and digital content creators.
“One day I passed a young woman on the street, she was crying that she’d never be clean, and I wondered what her chances were of getting clean,” Sandoval said. “I went home that night and researched and found out that there were 16 showers [for] over 3,500 people living on the streets to use. I just thought that was appalling. This is a first-world country. San Francisco is one of the most affluent cities in the world and we have issues with water and sanitation, which is shocking.”
Sandoval, 53, grew up in south Texas, but moved to the Bay Area in 1987.
The pilot program launched in June 2014 and has since served 14,000 showers.
But getting the program up and running was a lengthy process at City Hall, according to Sandoval. The buses, which park at various locations in San Francisco, access water from the city’s fire hydrants.
Sandoval started an Indiegogo campaign to get funding for the buses and while doing so, the campaign received 7,000 requests for information to start this kind of work in other parts of the world like Zimbabwe and Honolulu.
The buses usually have two full bathrooms, where people are provided with towels and toiletries and 15-minute showers (unless they have a disability, in which case they are given more time).
Sandoval initially envisioned the busses having six showers, but after talking to people and seeing the needs of the community, she decided to go with two per bus.
“If you’re homeless, two things are true: one, you never have a moment of privacy, and two, if you’re a woman or LGBTQ, the incidents of attack in a shower where there’s multiple showers is really high,” Sandoval said. “So we wanted to make sure we have privacy and safety.”
The buses have a set schedule every week where they go to neighborhoods like the Mission District, the Tenderloin, Civic Center, the Castro and the Haight.
“Too many people have the stereotype that people are homeless because they want to be,” Sandoval said. “We see people who are working families, parents who have fulltime jobs that have school-aged children and they are living in a car because they can’t afford to pay rent and can’t save enough money to leave the area and start over again. We see senior citizens being evicted from their homes in their 80s and 90s without any safety net.”
Sandoval is looking to expand Lava Mae to San Jose and hopes to serve 30,000 people by the end of 2020.
“What we hope is that people recognize that we are all the same and that there’s a thin line that separates us, and that we need to treat each other with humanity and dignity,” Sandoval said. “We need to come up with solutions that don’t leave people on the streets and take care of people’s basic needs.”
Story by: Genesis Chavez Caro