No one grows up with the goal of being homeless. Doniece Sandoval, the founder of Lava Mae, realized during a life-changing cab ride. Lava Mae is a nonprofit in San Francisco that converts public transportation buses into mobile hygiene units, or bathrooms on wheels. (Yes, it seems businesses on wheels really intrigue me.) The goal: To deliver hygiene and to reconnect people experiencing houselessness with their dignity.
Doniece began Lava Mae after learning there were 16 shower stalls and about as many toilets for San Francisco's 7,500 houseless men, women, and children. Think about that math. It just does not work out. In this episode, she talks about how her idea became reality in such wonderful detail. In the five years since launching Lava Mae, 14,000 Californians have been served. Lava Mae is expanding by sharing an open source toolkit to respond to the more than 2,000 requests for help from communities as far away as Zimbabwe and as close as New York. In that same period of time, she has won countless awards and been recognized by CNN, Toyota and other organizations. Doniece, however, is most proud of the honor bestowed upon her by her 12-year-old daughter who calls her a homeless superhero. You know what? Her daughter is so right.
In this episode, we discussed what Radical Hospitality™ is and transforming how communities see our unhoused neighbors. Hygiene is important for everyone, not only for physical health, but for self-worth and self-confidence. Doniece saw firsthand how a shower can change a person, their view of the world, and how the world views them. She also eloquently shared her experience of seeing how bureaucracy and innovation can play nice in the sandbox.
Doniece helps us see ways to navigate interactions with our houseless, sometimes invisible, neighbors, people who need to be and should be seen. She reminds us that being homeless is a set of circumstances, not the identity of a person. I was deeply moved by Doniece’s story. I sincerely hope you will be, too.
Selected link love + resources from the episode:
Start your own mobile hygiene service with this open-source tool kit: https://buildit.lavamae.org/
The 3 Pillars of Lava Mae: Mobile Hygiene, Pop-up Care Villages and Replication
Brett Terpeluk, architect
Kohler (Bathroom products company)
Karim Rashid (designer)
Research on how close people are to being homeless. (75% of Americans are $400 away?)
Sarah Blondin, Sarah Blondin is the founder, writer, videographer and podcast host for Live Awake
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All of this wisdom is from Doniece Sandoval herself (with some minor edits for readability).
[00:06:57] Despite having been through the Tenderloin - hundreds, if not thousands of times before - when I looked at people, my first thought was that not a single one of them, when they were little, ever dreamed of growing up to live on the streets. Yet, there they were.
[00:08:13] What I found shocked me. I learned that for the 7,500 officially unhoused people in this city, there were 16 shower stalls and about as many toilets. I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, right, shocking in a cityD where there are 107 millionaires per square mile and another 60 billionaires on top of that.’ Yet, it was true.
[00:09:13] [on reading an article about retiring buses] I'm a marketing person by background. The bells went off in my head, and I thought, ‘Wouldn't it be great to do something good with something people love to hate?’ The idea for Lava Mae was born.
[00:19:58] [On exploring Lava Mae guests’ needs] When you live on the streets, your entire life is in the public eye. You never have a moment of privacy or true respite, which I can't even fathom.
[00:22:21] The thing we learned after we launched [Lava Mae], as I was watching my team deliver this service, was that the way you serve people is actually more important than the service itself.
[00:33:30] [On something as simple as just saying hello to someone on the street] It doesn't have to be big. These micro-acts of kindness are incredibly powerful.
[00:43:26] I still feel like one person goes in to take a shower, and it's a totally different person that emerges, right? The ability to wash away the grime, the ability to stand under this hot shower where you feel renewed and refreshed, and as if you have value. You won't be walking down the street with people trying to avoid you because you don't smell good or whatever.
[01:03:00] [On using visualization to slow down] I try to envision myself moving through amber. If you've ever seen the sap on trees and stuff like that, you can't move fast. There's no way. So, it's a little visualization I do for myself. Just slow it down. Less is better is what I want to achieve.
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