New San Francisco startup aims to create mobile showers for homeless out of abandoned Muni buses 

A new San Francisco startup is aiming to find a use for Muni’s decommissioned buses while also helping to address The City’s chronic homelessness.  

Lava Mae, founded by entrepreneur Doniece Sandoval, proposes to transform old Muni buses into mobile showers and toilets for use by homeless residents. The company has already secured the rights to at least one Muni bus and has contacted the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission about using water hydrants. The bus is one of 40 that Muni plans to junk in the coming years in favor of newer vehicles.

Sandoval said she is working with a local design firm on how to retrofit the buses to include one shower and toilet for disabled residents and another two showers for the general population. Under the assumption that a shower takes five minutes, Sandoval hopes to attract 100 to 130 homeless citizens a day with her first bus, which will eventually be available seven days a week.

“The United Nations states that access to clean water is a basic human right,” Sandoval said. “But for many residents in our city, that is clearly not a reality. This is about restoring some of their dignity.”

Sandoval said she was inspired to start Lava Mae — a play on the Spanish words “wash me” — by her experience with homelessness in San Francisco, particularly a time when she walked by a woman who kept chanting, “I’ll never be clean.”

“Obviously there were many layers to what she was saying,” Sandoval said. “But on a superficial level, it planted the idea for this project.”

Sandoval also has backing from Bevan Dufty, the Mayor’s Office leader on homeless issues. Since the facilities would be mobile, there would be little concern that they would impede upon specific neighborhoods, he said.

“We think this is a great idea, and we’re really amazed at Doniece’s initiative,” said Dufty, who has helped broker some of company’s dealings with Muni and the SFPUC. “She is addressing a basic human need in a very innovative manner.”

State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who recently introduced legislation to strengthen rights for homeless residents, also offered tentative support for the plan.

“This sounds intriguing,” Ammiano said. “We’re always open to ideas, but we need to know more. I’m glad, though, that someone is thinking creatively and not just trying to dream up laws against the homeless.”

The main impediment to the project is funding. Sandoval estimates that it will cost about $75,000 to $100,000 to retrofit each bus. She said she’s working on securing grant funding and donations from companies and individuals.

Ideally, she would secure enough funding to retrofit four Muni buses, which would operate seven days a week for eight to 10 hours a day, with a night shift possibly included. Lava Mae would have only a few staff members, relying mostly on volunteers.

“There is still some work to be done,” Sandoval said. “But the support for this project has been amazing so far. We think this can be a template for cities across the country.”

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Will Reisman

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