Kaiser Permanente funding enables an Oakland-based mobile shower service to bring hygiene, health, and hope to houseless neighbors.
It began with a simple act of kindness — as perhaps all important change does.
In 2013, San Franciscan Doniece Sandoval noticed a woman sitting on a city street curb crying. When Sandoval asked her what was wrong, the woman said that she just wanted to be clean.
Thus began the story of Sandoval’s brainchild, Lava Mae, a mashup of the Spanish word “lavame,” which means “wash me,” and Mae, Sandoval’s middle name.
That day Sandoval’s computer search showed there were only 16 part-time public shower facilities in San Francisco. Her reading was far-ranging and took her to another local news headline telling of the decommissioning of old municipal buses.
Under Sandoval’s tenacity and vision, those buses, once converted, were the initial Lava Mae mobile shower units bringing hygiene and hope to people living on the street.
Today, Lava Mae’s current fleet of 5 mobile shower trailers was designed by an architect, with the newest shower trailer deployed in Oakland in February, thanks to a $200,000 grant from Kaiser Permanente. That grant is just one piece of the organization’s long-standing community health initiative, which invests in the wellness of individuals in the communities it serves.
Houseless but Not Homeless
“Homeless” is a term with old, negative connotations. “Houseless” means that one may lack a permanent abode, but still have a sense of self and home.
These distinctions are important to Lave Mae professionals such as Kris Kepler, the senior program director who oversees the mobile hygiene service operating in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and now Oakland.
“Our mission is changing the way communities see and serve their houseless neighbors,” Kepler said of Lava Mae. “It’s a radical approach in which services are brought to the streets where houseless people live and delivered with the highest level of respect and care.”
Kepler talks about friendship and connection as part of what Lava Mae brings to people she says are often isolated. At the same time, she paints a sobering picture: One-quarter of the nation’s houseless population live in California. “We are seeing a lot more youth and families out on the street lately.”
“It has been so important to have Kaiser Permanente’s level of support,” Kepler added. “We have always wanted to expand to the East Bay, and we deeply appreciate the organization making that possible for us and initiating a whole new groundswell of visibility and support for our houseless neighbors.”
More Than a Shower
The City of Oakland has declared a shelter crisis as its houseless population has increased to around 2,700 people. Recently, the city has opened shed communities within the largest encampments as a bridge between living on the streets and finding permanent housing and employment.
One shed site is at Northgate Avenue and Sycamore Streets, under Interstate 980, and the other at 6th and Castro Streets.
“Street encampments are not healthy or safe for anyone, especially the residents who live there,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has said. “It’s not compassionate or effective to simply tell them to move on.”
Instead, the city is working with mobile services such as Lava Mae — think haircuts to health care screenings — to get people from houseless to healthy.
Lava Mae’s Kaiser Permanente-funded unit is in service 2 days a week at each shed site, from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Each mobile unit is ADA-compliant and includes a toilet, sink, donated soap products, and 3 showers that are then hooked up to a fire hydrant, requiring about 25 gallons of water per shower, or 1,200 gallons per site visit.
As the water washes away rough days on the street, it leaves behind a fresh sheen of confidence.
“Oakland is the home of Kaiser Permanente’s national headquarters, and we have a moral imperative to take a leading role in the well-being of the city residents,” said Yvette Radford, regional vice president of External and Community Affairs.
“We’re proud to collaborate with the city and Lava Mae on addressing this essential human need for Oakland’s unsheltered residents.”