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One woman, one radical idea

By Katie Morell

It’s a crisp winter day and Doniece Sandoval is standing at Golden Gate and Jones, animatedly chatting with five middle-aged adults waiting in line to take a shower in one of Lava Mae’s vibrant blue trailers, parked on the corner. “It is great to be here and see these beautiful faces,” she says. “What a gorgeous day.”

Lava Mae is a local nonprofit that uses bright, airy trailers to provide homeless residents with showers and toilets, proving its motto of “radical hospitality.” Services—free to anyone who shows up—are available Monday through Saturday all over San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Los Angeles. Each location is near a charitable partner; Golden Gate/Jones, for example, is across from St. Anthony’s food hall. San Francisco’s homeless problem is one of the worst in the nation, with some stats estimating 795 people per 100,000 residents living on the street, only surpassed by New York.

Back on the sidewalk, a woman exits the trailer with a big smile and a fresh change of clothes. She beams calm and relaxed energy as she heads north on Jones to go about her day.

“We are helping people rekindle their dignity,” says Sandoval. “We innately have it in us at all times, but the chance to get clean, literally and figuratively, and wash [whatever you need] away for a period of time—it reconnects you with that.”

A man with a baseball cap walks up and gives Sandoval a hug. His name is Thomas and, at 54, he started utilizing Lava Mae’s facilities a few years ago.

“I helped them fix a few things and would hook the trailers up to the water hoses. I would use the showers, too,” he says. “But after 15 years of being homeless, I told Doniece I was ready to be housed and she put the word out on Lava Mae’s Facebook page. Today I have a home.”

Five years ago, Sandoval was a marketing executive zipping around the city. On a particularly busy day in 2012, she hopped in a cab, and just as she passed Golden Gate/Hyde, her driver spoke the sentence that would change her life: “Welcome to the land of broken dreams.”

Sandoval had been through the Tenderloin countless times, but his words struck a chord. She looked out the window and, as she puts it, “saw people for the first time.”

She decided to keep her eyes open for opportunities to help, and soon passed a homeless woman who was complaining about never being clean. Something clicked: She’d just read an article about retired Muni buses, knew of the city’s lack of public toilets and showers (“This is a first-world country and we have a third-world crisis”) and put the two together.

For the next 18 months she created a plan for a nonprofit that would provide free showers and toilets to those in need. In June 2014, Lava Mae was born.

Since its launch, Lava Mae has expanded and adopted the trailer model (easier to find drivers than using Muni buses), and Sandoval and her team of 15 full-timers (along with 300 volunteers) are busy on a variety of other initiatives. Among them, an art exhibit that ran earlier this year designed to help change perceptions around homelessness. (It will show again later this year in Palo Alto and LA.)

“People think homeless people are aggressive panhandlers, mentally ill or drug addicted, but the truth is that 80 percent of them are only temporarily homeless, sometimes for as little as two weeks at a time,” says Sandoval. “We serve a lot of people who have jobs—sometimes two working parents who were recently evicted and are living in their car with their kids.”

Last year, Lava Mae launched its Pop Up Care Villages to provide one-stop shopping for everything from food and job placement to haircuts and medical care.

Even with all this good work, the need is still tremendous. Sandoval is on the hunt for a partner to provide undergarments to guests—90 percent of people have a change of clothes, but are in desperate need of T-shirts, underwear and socks. And she’d like to increase the frequency of Pop Up Care Villages—now bimonthly—to several times a week.

The best part of her job?

“It’s the people we work with—they are so generous,” she says. “I’ve seen people in line who don’t have shoes or jackets and they will hear someone in front of them saying they are starving and give them half of their sandwich. These are people who have nothing. It is really inspiring.”

For more information on Sandoval’s innovative organization, check out lavamae.org.

“We are helping people rekindle their dignity,” says Lava Mae founder Doniece Sandoval , on her mobile shower operation.

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