Mobile Hygiene Service Helps People Shine

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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.

The mobile shower service can go directly to different neighborhoods, too.

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.”

Learn more about Lava Mae, including how to donate, give, and volunteer.

Discussion23 Comments

  1. It would be wonderful if we could have this in Sacramento. Our houseless population has also grown.

    I would be willing to donate my time if we could start one here.

    This is a wonderful project, thank you.

  2. What a wonderful service. I am very proud to work for an organization that supports underserved populations in the communities in which it operates. Kudos to Lava Mae staff AND Kaiser Permanente!

  3. Theresa Duckworth

    Thank you, Kaiser! This is such a wonderful contribution! Any plans for San Joaquin? We have so many that could benefit from this service as well.

  4. Kate Fleischmann

    Thank you, Kaiser Permanente! As both an employee and a resident of Oakland, the housing crisis is on my mind on a daily basis. I appreciate that we are giving back to our home base community in this positive and high impact way!

  5. This is such a great article!! It brought tears to my eyes. Reading it reminded me of a time not too long ago when someone I love was struggling and houseless. I can remember him crying and saying he felt so disgusting and not even human. He just wanted to be clean. Showering truly was the one thing that took away some of the shame and allowed him to look for work or better yet look people in the eye.

    I am super proud to be a Kaiser employee. We ALL do such great work here! From the receptionists who set the tone for our patients’ experience, to the MAs who transfer information to and from the providers, to all the techs who make sometimes scary procedures not so scary and the folks that keep it clean and safe here in the clinic. Magic happens here on a daily basis. It’s so nice to see it spilling out beyond the walls and into the streets of the communities we serve.

    Keep it going.

  6. wan ju Liao-Marquina

    YES! Thank you Kaiser! I am so thankful for these kind acts of people, and generous act of Kaiser for homeless and houseless neighbors! I am proud to be part of Kaiser!

  7. When I saw this article my mouth flew open! Just last week a thought came to me, “If I had an RV, I could drive around and let the people in need take a shower” … What a blessing to see it in action and that people think like I do. Thanks so much.

  8. Jamillah Garrison

    Excellent. I am proud to be an employee of Kaiser Permanente and I am thrilled to learn of KP’s involvement with this initiative. When I worked in Oakland I would stop and feed the houseless at the Northgate Avenue and Sycamore Street camp; it is the best feeling to give back to those in need.

  9. I am very happy to see this service is helping those in need. Feeling clean can change a person’s entire outlook and health. Hopefully it can spread to other cities.

  10. Great start. Would love to see foot care added to the services offered. Perhaps volunteers from Podiatry can trim toe nails and check for lesions.

  11. This is a great first step for Oakland, and I hope support can also come to other cities like, San Francisco, to help with the effects of the combined housing, mental health, and drug use crisis visible on our streets. I hope those who visit these showers can also get information or connection to other resources and organizations to help address the things that are keeping them “houseless” and help them move up into both a home and into health.

  12. Linnea Williams

    How uplifting! I am so proud to be a part of Kaiser Permanente. As a health care provider, I wish that I had time to participate in such life-changing programs. Thanks so much to those who do this Good Work!

  13. Annette McFarland

    Thank you Kaiser Permanente for caring about the people of Oakland and about the homeless in general.

    • This is the first time I have heard of this helping out Homeless in the Oakland area. Congratulations!

      San Jose needs more help in what we are doing through The Village House, Home First, and the churches that sign up with Faith Collaborative. Showers are one of the most costly things to get as many churches can’t afford them! Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in San Jose looked into the possibility and the cost was just out of sight. So, we do daycare and then the women we have as our guests are shuttled to the nearby Catholic Church where nuns used to live so there are bathing facilities there. Our women are driven back to us early in the morning after a shower or bath and a night’s sleep. We are doing the best we can.

      So happy to hear that Oakland is getting more help! Good job!

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