Lava Mae Goes Castro


Buses Provide Homeless Sanitation, Dignity



By now you’ve probably seen one of those big blue buses in front of Most Holy Redeemer at 100 Diamond St. on Wednesday afternoons, or you’ve seen them around Civic Center, some locations in the Tenderloin or the Mission. And you’ve probably had a look inside from coverage by one of our local TV stations.


If you don’t know what these big blue ladies (or gentlemen) are doing, let us explain. Starting three weeks ago, in conjunction with the parish’s famed Wednesday Night Suppers, the Lava Mae bus, a San Francisco-based mobile shower and sanitation service for the homeless, will be parked outside the church—for now the only location in the Castro—from 2 until 5 p.m.


These old Muni buses have been turned into mobile shower stalls, delivering, as the sign in front of each bus infers, dignity one shower at a time. In formal language, these are used Muni buses “repurposed” into showers and toilets on wheels to give homeless people the opportunity to get clean and regain a sense of empowerment and humanity. In short, Lava Mae believes that with hygiene comes dignity and with dignity, opportunity.


San Francisco resident Doniece Sandoval founded Lava Mae, a nonprofit based on the idea that old, unused city buses could be retrofitted with fully functioning showers for homeless people to use. Designed in consultation with the people they would serve, each bus holds two individual shower pods, one of which is accessible for people with disabilities.


In San Francisco it was important to have a mobile model to ensure reaching people scattered throughout the city and to assure that the service not be vulnerable to increasing rents and potential evictions. The nonprofit works closely with local government and in partnership with a range of nonprofits serving the homeless from drop-in centers and health clinics to re-entry programs.


Community reaction throughout the city has been highly enthusiastic. Volunteers are encouraged to email In addition, gifts of soap and toiletries and other items are welcome, but donors should first check with Michael or other staff to see what is most needed in the moment. And in case you’ve been wondering, Lava Mae is a play on the Spanish word for “wash me!”


The city initially donated four decommissioned municipal buses to Lava Mae and allowed the nonprofit to tap into city fire hydrants. The cost of retrofitting the shower pods came to $75,000 per bus. Each bus has two shower stalls completewith sinks and toilets as well as towels, soap and other toiletries. Included is space for personal belongings as well. Initial costs were funded by foundations, private donations and by founder Doniece Sandoval and her husband.

Photo: Bill Sywak


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