The Great Unwashed

Urban Renewal
ames Faulkner, a homeless man, plays his guitar while sitting near his shopping cart in the Mission District in San Francisco. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Doniece Sandoval parks her BMW alongside a line of shopping carts outside a homeless shelter in San Francisco's Mission District. Maneuvering around the carts full of empty bottles and belongings, Sandoval makes her way inside the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center. A striking 51-year-old with an angled gray-black bob and a yellow purse, Sandoval has a background in fashion and marketing - and a business called Lava Mae that's bringing showers and toilets to the homeless. By bus.

Homeless services have recently been aimed at providing housing, not sanitary services like Lava Mae, says Laura Guzman, director of Mission Neighborhood Health Center. And yet the city's biennial count in 2013 found 6,436 homeless people and fewer than seven facilities where they can shower.

Lava Mae is part of a growing trend of entrepreneurs meeting the needs of the city's homeless population without relying on local government. Long known for its social welfare programs and tolerance, San Francisco is now becoming famous for its tech millionaires and skyrocketing rents. Organizations like HandUp, which has created an app that allows people to donate directly to a homeless person via text message, are attempting to bridge the gap between the rich (or very comfortable) and the poor. Another new venture is Bridge, which provides information about homeless services through kiosks in public places.

Lava Mae isn't in the tech realm, but it is innovative. There are several similar services around the country but they tend to use school buses, mobile homes or horse trailers. Lava Mae uses old Muni buses, a symbol of the city's somewhat antiquated public transportation system.

Retrofitting a bus into a mobile showering unit has created some interesting problems for architect Brett Terpeluk. Buildings are level. A bus parked on a hill in San Francisco is not, making draining shower water tricky. Then there is the question of who issues permits for a mobile shower. Terpeluk knows who doesn't: the building department, the public health department, the transportation department.

"It's not a building, it's not a passenger vehicle, and it's not a food truck," he explains. "So we're kind of treading new territory here."

Sandoval's work-around to potential bureaucratic backlash was to involve city government and service organizations early on. She was helped in this by Bevan Dufty, director of the city's homeless task force HOPE (Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement). Muni is giving her four old buses, and she is being allowed to hook up to fire hydrants for water. She has raised the $75,000 needed to retrofit her first bus and is working on securing corporate sponsorship, grants and in-kind donations to cover the rest of her $318,000 first-year budget. To draw attention to the cause, Sandoval, who showers daily, spent a week without showering. She says her 6-year-old daughter, Tamasen, was the only one to comment on her odor. But at the end of the week Sandoval had to wash her hair four times before she felt clean.

At the Mission Resource Center, Charles Rosh has just finished showering. He washes twice a week, sometimes waiting as long as two hours to use one of the two stalls in the men's bathroom. The wait for the women's isn't as long, says Janel Wilson. A shower, she says, helps you "pull yourself together just to prepare yourself for daily errands or whatever the day may be." Lava Mae's tagline is "delivering dignity one shower at a time."

Towels, waste-water storage, advertising on the bus ticker, those are all things Sandoval thought about; people shooting drugs in the bathrooms was not. Now she knows there is a nasal spray she can use to revive most overdose victims. There will be more lessons once the first bus rolls out in March, but Sandoval has proved a fast - and fashionable - study.

"She's doing it kind of in style," says Guzman. "So I love her even more."