Converted Muni Buses Set to Make Life a Little More Tolerable for San Francisco’s Homeless

The city of San Francisco is home to almost 1,000,000 inhabitants, approximately 3500 of whom are homeless. The sights and smells of men and women using the sidewalk as their bed and the garbage as their pantry have become parts of everyday life in the bustling metropolis.

In a city so plagued by homelessness, only sixteen showers in eight locations provide homeless residents with a means of cleanliness. One woman chose to do something about it. Her name is Doniece Sandoval. I had the pleasure of interviewing her over the phone to better understand her efforts to identify a solution.

Sandoval was struck with a revolutionary idea: turning an abandoned Muni bus into a shower station for homeless San Franciscans. She called it Lava Mae.

“If you’re on the streets and you don’t get to shower, you lose the sense of your dignity; you lose touch with your humanity; and if those things are gone, it’s really hard to get yourself up and try…to get yourself beyond your situation.”

Her initial move was to speak with Bevan Dufty, head of the Mayor’s Office of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships, and Engagement (HOPE). She approached him first to see if he would approve of the idea, and second if he was willing to be Lava Mae’s champion. Sandoval cites the forming of this connection as the smartest thing she could have done for working with the different government agencies.

Dufty was instrumental in wading through San Francisco’s many regulations and ordinances. The city’s Department of Public Works, Department of Public Health, and other levels of bureaucracy posed challenges to overcome.

As far as permits were concerned, the Muni bus conversions were so revolutionary that it fell in a sort of “no man’s land” with the Department of Health. However persistence paid off as last week, department representatives toured the bus and performed a test run. The response was optimistic.

Sandoval has also worked with the Public Utilities Commission to allow the buses to connect to the city’s fire hydrants for free.

Recently, Lava Mae reached out to the TWU Local 250-A, essentially the union of Muni bus drivers, to ask if they would be willing to do service runs with the busses. They agreed to assist.

One of the biggest roadblocks in the development of Lava Mae from a dream to a reality has been the procurement of funds. Lava Mae is an expensive venture with this year budget adding up to $317,000. Google has contributed $100,000 to the project, and Dr. Bronner’s Magical Soaps another $50,000. Many other individuals and organization stepped to up to contribute.

When asked what personal advice she has for those in other cities who are considering starting something similar to Lava Mae, Sandoval responded, “You have to be patient…. Especially with the fundraising part. You get nine no’s before you get a yes, and you just have to be willing.”

Sandoval acknowledges that every city will have its own unique challenges with implementing a bus-driven solution to showering the homeless. For example, San Francisco has a very singular dual storm drain and sewer system. This allows a shower bus to send the grey water back into the sewer system. Most other cities do not have such a system. Many logistical challenges will be different from community to community, although Sandoval does not see this changing the time frame of future ventures. A startup would take 1.5 – 2 years in most cities, and the main challenge will remain finances, regardless of location.

Where does Doniece Sandoval see Lava Mae going in the future? Lately, she and others in Lava Mae have had several conversations with the City and County of Honolulu regarding the possibility of bringing a publicly funded form of Lava Mae to the Hawaiian community. Currently, the San Francisco project has been 100% privately funded, but Sandoval insists that an effort to provide cleanliness to homeless populations should be in the purview of government support.

In San Francisco, Sandoval envisions one Lava Mae bus offering 130 showers a day to the homeless who would otherwise remain dirty.

“We seek to bring dignity one shower at a time,” she informed the SFGate.

Doniece Sandoval is doing exactly that. By stepping up and taking action, she has become an inspiration to thousands, and a harbinger for more change to come.

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