by Lilah Beldner
Imagine the feeling of taking a hot shower after a long day. Fifteen simple minutes of peace, privacy, and relaxation. For most people, that is a daily ritual. For those living on the streets, it is an inconceivable privilege.
Lava Mae was founded on the belief that all people deserve to be treated with dignity. For unhoused individuals, having access to a hot shower is the first step in reigniting a feeling of dignity and fighting the vicious cycle of homelessness. In 2013, there were only 7 public shower facilities for the 7,500 people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco. These traditional bathrooms are not the most effective, since one of the biggest challenges for the homeless is protecting their belongings while they go to appointments, shower, or find food.
Doniece Sandoval, founder and CEO of Lava Mae, thought the best solution would be to bring hygiene facilities directly to her unhoused neighbors. “If you could put gourmet food on wheels and bring it anywhere,” she thought, “why not showers and toilets?” Thus, mobile hygiene was born.
Lava Mae started in 2014 in retired city buses that were retrofitted with two private bathroom stalls and connected to fire hydrants for water. The organization has since transitioned to repurposed trailers, which allow for three shower stalls. The mobile hygiene units move around San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles to provide services to neighborhoods most in need. By the time the trailer pulls up to its location, unhoused “guests” have already started a waitlist for the showers. Each guest receives shampoo, soap, socks, a towel, and 15 minutes of privacy.
The most important part of mobile hygiene is not simply giving guests a shower–it is the way the unhoused guests are treated. Mobile hygiene is effective because guests are treated with care, respect, and dignity that leads to unlikely friendships and a strong community. This principle is called Radical Hospitality. The majority of guests are regulars–they return each week not only to shower, but also to spend their day in a safe, welcoming space.
The balance of privacy (in the shower), communal connection (before and after the shower), and Radical Hospitality is what makes mobile hygiene services so healing. These principles are a critical step to leading a sustainable and healthy life, yet they are the two principles unhoused individuals lack most.
Where We Are Now
In just five years, Lava Mae has delivered over 52,000 showers to over 15,000 guests throughout California. Even more critical than the local impact, however, is the global impact. Lava Mae has sparked a mobile hygiene revolution that has inspired more than one hundred new mobile hygiene programs around the world, from Brooklyn to New Zealand. Anyone, anywhere can bring mobile hygiene to their own community by downloading Lava Mae’s free Replication Toolkit and joining the community of replicators. Lava Mae works closely with replicators, providing funding and training for mobile hygiene ambassadors around the world.
There are so many ways to help your unhoused neighbors besides starting a mobile hygiene program. Making eye contact, saying hello, and leading with compassion are great first steps to making them feel visible and human again. Another excellent way to make an impact is by assembling and distributing hygiene kits–filled with essentials such as deodorant, shampoo, razors, socks, or even heartwarming notes–regardless of whether or not your community has a mobile hygiene program.
Many people ignore their unhoused neighbors because they are unfamiliar or their presence makes them feel uncomfortable. Volunteer at or donate to your local homeless shelter or shower program and make an effort to get to know those living on the streets. Most importantly, become an advocate for your unhoused neighbors–feeling invisible can be worse than feeling dirty.