Friday, May 29, 2015

Getting my hands Dirty: A day with Lava Mae

"Hygiene brings dignity and dignity opens up opportunity"
                 - Doniece Sandoval, Lava Mae founder

Last night before I went to dinner with a friend I took a shower. Not that I really needed one, but it's something I tend to take for granted that I will be able to do... to freshen up for company.

This morning I woke up at an ungodly hour and headed into San Francisco to work an opening shift for LavaMae, a mobile shower (and toilet!) facility serving San Francisco's homeless population.
I arrived at 730 Polk Street at 9am, and was immediately put to work assembling 'hygiene kits' in the front of the bus. These were ziplock bags full of donated toiletries including soap, bodywash, toothbrushes and toothpaste to provide to clients who didn't have their own (which was a large percentage.)

By the time we opened at 9:30 there was already a fairly long waiting list for our two shower units. People can arrive on a drop-in basis and sign up. They get about 15 minutes in the shower and we clean it after each one, but there's a lot of down time for the volunteers in between, so I got to talk to the clients.

It is truly a vast cross section of humanity. One man who stopped by told me he hadn't had a shower in 14 months. He goes for a swim when he needs a wash, but last week when he tried to get on a bus to go home to see his mother (who he hasn't seen in 15 years) he was turned away because he was too dirty. He thought he might come back and shower before he tries again next week. We also talked about whether he should shave his beard "I don't want her to think I've been living under a bridge... even if I have!"

Another man told me about traveling the world and his time in Thailand. Another told me about how he spends the days collecting bottles to recycle, and it's a pity more people don't take an interest in keeping the streets clean. A couple of young entrepreneurs traveling down the west coast on a budget stopped by. A young man helped me rescue a bee that had fallen on the sidewalk because it was too cold to fly.

Lava Mae was the brainchild of Doniece Sandoval, a marketing and PR professional, who is passionate about creative solutions to problems like homelessness. When she heard a young woman on the street crying that she had never been clean a seed was planted, and when she heard that Muni was upgrading their busses and had a donation programme for the old ones she came up with a crazy idea. If you can have food on wheels why not showers on wheels? So she secured a bus, donors, an architect, and last year the first LavaMae bus hit the streets of San Francisco.

Several asked me during the day what made me want to volunteer, and I fumbled with an answer ("Because I'm interested in toilets... it's a long story...")

I suppose in part the day was dedicated to a Toilet Attendant who became a close friend in London. I used to spend time chatting, and watching his interactions with customers. The trials and tribulations of the life of cleaning up after other people. He was pretty direct about calling me and his boss out on one thing: "You get to drop by, but this is my reality all day every day." He was amused but baffled by why I (or anyone) was so interested in Toilets. I like to think he'd be proud of me, but in reality I'm sure he'd still be baffled ("Why on earth would you voluntarily spend the day cleaning toilets?")

Lava Mae has been on my radar for quite some time, since they did a world Toilet Day promotion a couple years ago, and I've started and failed to finish several posts about them in the past, partly, I think because I've lacked the words to express the uniqueness of what they do. I needed the hands on experience.

One thing that is incredibly important to me as a researcher is not to remain above the fray. It's an easy comfortable place analyzing, reading and thinking, but I think if you truly care about something you have to be willing to get down and dirty, or at the least dip your toes in. What I learned from the day of working on the bus may not be the stuff which anthropological PhDs are made on, but it was a more important reminder about the power of human connection.

Incidentally there was a recent NPR article on a related subject: "Nonacademic Skills Are the Key to Success: But What Should We Call Them." About the semantics of how we deal with all those things that can't be measured by tests. A quote that particularly jumped out at me was this thought from Noah Webster (the dictionary guy!) in 1778:
"The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head."
So more food for thought as I think about whether and where to do a PhD, and what angle to approach it from.

Something I admire about Doniece and the way she approaches her work is it's very specific to people and place. A group of private citizens responding to a need and leading by example. They're not trying to solve homelessness or launch a massive sweeping campaign that will slowly mobilize the government into action. They're not even trying to create something that can be scaled massively, since, as she explained to me the first time we met, each place and population has its unique circumstances and issues. The dream is to inspire others, perhaps to provide guidelines for them to replicate and adapt the model (more, I think, on scalability in a future post.)

For the clients it's 20 minutes of clean private space. Dignity. Possibly a first step towards getting on a bus, going to a job interview, or other opportunities.

For volunteers like me it's a chance to scrub away labels and prejudices both conscious and unconscious. A reminder that the overarching label of 'homelessness' encompasses a wide spectrum of circumstances... but that all of them are no less human or deserving of respect than any of the rest of us.

When I got home I took a shower before going to my afternoon job... because you can't show up for babysitting smelling like toilet cleaner. I suppose still took it for granted, but at least I have a greater appreciation for how lucky I am to be able to do that.

If you're in San Francisco I highly recommend volunteering, especially if you like meeting interesting people. Or donating... money, soap, tooth brushes, hand cream... it's all useful.

Dancing at the Lava Mae "Showered with Love" fundraiser gala in March... they're raising money for additional busses in San Francisco.

This was a very different atmosphere to being on the bus on the street. Fun as it was, I think if I had to choose just one place to be I'd pick the bus. 


  1. Great article and a really good initiative. I wonder whether there/s an opportunity to develop a suspended haircut/shave circuit, similar to the suspended coffee idea. That could be really valuable. Or maybe it happens already?

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