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The Surprising Way a Shower Could Save a Life

A San Francisco marketing exec took a cab ride through a ratty neighborhood. What she saw inspired her to help restore dignity to the homeless.

Like anyone who lives in a major city, Doniece Sandoval sees homeless people everywhere. Especially in her town: San Francisco. Until two years ago, though, she saw them out of the corner of her eye, as she bustled past.

Then came one particular cab ride through the city’s South of Market neighborhood. As the cab rolled through the area, a mix of hopeful startup employees and homeless people, the driver muttered something that stuck: “Welcome to the land of broken dreams.”

At 51, Sandoval was a successful marketing and public-relations entrepreneur, her dreams anything but broken. But for thousands, this city was the land of broken dreams. A few months later, when Sandoval happened upon a young woman sobbing uncontrollably beneath an overpass at the San Francisco Design Center, she stopped to listen. The woman’s desperate refrain: “I’ll never be clean.”

She could have meant anything, of course. In parts of San Francisco, drug addicts are as common as parking meters. But on this day, that phrase got Sandoval thinking about how hard it is for homeless people to clean their own bodies of the grime and soot of life on the streets.

“There was something about that moment, in that place, and realizing what I had been doing wasn’t enough,” she says.

Sandoval did a little research, and discovered that this city of 800,000 people had exactly 16 available public showers. She learned that San Francisco is “home” to more than 3,000 who don’t have a home, and she did the math. Sixteen showers. Three thousand people. “It just seemed criminal,” she says.

I can relate. While I’ve never been homeless, my brother is, and I know from talking to him (and smelling him) that keeping clean is one of the biggest challenges about living on the streets. It’s how people know you’re homeless—by the way you smell. It can be humiliating.

Sandoval could have stopped there. She could have written letters to nonprofits, to philanthropists, to City Hall, urging someone else to install more public showers. Instead, she quit her job and started a nonprofit: Lava Mae (for Lava me, Spanish for “wash me”). By early next year, the organization’s first retrofitted Muni bus will take to the streets of San Francisco, stopping at predetermined locations throughout the day, tapping into a public fire hydrant, ferrying that fluid onto the decommissioned bus, heating it with on-board propane tanks and then pumping it out stainless steel shower heads. There will be changing rooms, toilets and sinks inside.

Free showers for the homeless. No application. No screening. No questionnaire. Just a hot bath.

Lava Mae’s beauty is in its flexibility, and simplicity. A mobile unit means no exorbitant rent, no hassling with NIMBY neighbors over a location, no requirement that an already disenfranchised and resource-strapped population meet Sandoval at her place, on her terms.

She got to this point, to the first bus, via an Indiegogo campaign to raise  $75,000 for the retrofit and via partnerships with other area nonprofits and businesses, like the one she’s negotiating with now over the actual installation of the shower stalls and fixtures.

But Lava Mae is also soon-to-be mobile because Sandoval learned from her predecessors’ past mistakes. Several others have tried to provide mobile showers for the homeless in locations dotted across the country. But all too often, they’ve met resistance from local government officials and others who clog access by trying too hard to screen participants.

Sandoval has approval from the city to tap into fire hydrants and a plan to discharge the gray water into the city’s dual storm drain and sewer system. She realizes that a lack of screening will likely result in “people who will shoot up on our buses.” But she says the staff will be trained in administering drugs such as Narcan, which is designed to counteract opiates—and will be ready to deal with problems as they crop up.

This is not a campaign to “end homelessness,” Sandoval hastens to point out. Some 10 to 15 percent of the homeless population is chronically so, and a shower won’t change that. What a shower will do, though, is enable a segment of the population stripped of its dignity to restore a bit of it, even if only for a few minutes and the few hours that cleanliness lasts, until the grime of sidewalks creeps back in.

“A lot of them have serious mental illnesses and drug addiction,” Sandoval says. “Some have just fallen on hard times. They’re applying for jobs, permanent housing, struggling to get clean.”

What does she say to critics who believe that by helping the homeless, she merely enables them to continue living work-free? “There are people who think offering any services to the homeless not only prolongs but encourages homelessness,” Sandoval says. “That’s completely wrong-headed.”

Gentrification, for example, has led to thousands of evictions from “up-and-coming” neighborhoods throughout the city. The eviction rate last year was 12 percent. Among those ousted from their apartments: her own mother-in-law, who had the family resources to help her find a new place to live after the rents got too high in her neighborhood, Sunset.  An older African-American man who lived in Sandoval’s NoPa neighborhood, though, wound up living in Golden Gate Park. She sees him there regularly. She gets choked up, talking about it.

Here’s the thing about a shower, when you’re homeless. It’s not just a Band-Aid. It’s the thin line between dignity and despair, between being able to walk into a job interview with a decent set of clothes on and not have your body odor silently scream “I slept in a doorway last night!”

It’s also about whether people are willing to share their space with you, for more than five minutes. Once I gave my homeless brother a ride somewhere, and the seatbelt of my car reeked afterward, for a week. The seatbelt. I can’t deny that I thought about that the next time he needed my help. I thought about how I could do so without having to sit in a car with him.

My brother recently got kicked out of the first reliable shelter he’s been able to occupy in decades. Someone with influence over the property owner who let him stay there had complained about his proclivity for wearing shirts not expansive enough for his oversized gut. Bad hygiene closes doors for the homeless.

So I hope, as Sandoval does, that her idea catches fire. That her plan to expand Lava Mae from one bus to four works out, soon, and that as homeless advocates in cities all over the world hear about the 2,000 showers a week on her buses, that they’ll be inspired to retrofit their own, and start their own programs. She’s already fielded phone calls from Atlanta to Cairo.

“We really want to focus on making a model that’s replicable,” she says. “It’s really resonating with people.”

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Winston Ross is a former national correspondent with Newsweek and The Daily Beast and now freelances for various outlets. He lives in Eugene, Ore.

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