Lava Mae Offers Radical Hospitality—One Shower at a Time

This is a series dedicated to highlighting the remarkable work of Dr. Bronner’s philanthropic partners.

Randy Campbell is hard to miss. He has a tall, gangly frame topped with thick red hair and an equally thick red beard. But it’s Randy’s warm, exuberant personality that makes him easy to spot.

On a sunny day in late January, Randy, along with dozens of other fellow volunteers, worked to transform a typically sleepy street by the main San Francisco Public Library into a bustling Pop-Up Care Village. Multilingual flags waved in the wind as guests patiently waited on the sidewalk for the event to begin. And wherever you looked, there was Randy, offering pointers and lending a hand. Nearly a dozen tents and mobile units had been set-up, each armed with joyful staffers, food, samples, and a vast array of services.

Randy Campbell and Doniece Sandoval greet a Lava Mae guest

At first glance, a passerby could mistake the scene for an experiential marketing event. Free coffee to draw people in, bright decor and live music to set the tone, staffers in organizational t-shirts, and plenty of free swag to collect. But this was far from a product launch. The free services were almost all health-related—rapid HIV and Hep-A testing, flu-shots, dentistry, eye care, and even free showers. The pop-up got it right: to the target market, this event was an oasis. But there was no product to buy at the end of it all. That’s because it was one of Lava Mae’s regular Pop-Up Care Villages, designed for people experiencing homelessness—like Randy once did.

The Truth About Homelessness

80% of people experiencing homelessness are only temporarily homeless.

The story often told of people living on the streets is one of hopelessness—one where citizens feel like they can’t help. It is this common narrative that San Francisco-based non-profit Lava Mae is working to rewrite. How? By transforming the way communities see and serve people moving through homelessness. For Lava Mae, change begins by delivering hygiene and other critical services through programs like their mobile shower service (free hot showers and toilets on wheels) and Pop-Up Care Villages for more comprehensive care.

At the core of Lava Mae’s work is Radical Hospitality—an unexpected level of care designed to restore dignity, rekindle optimism, and fuel a sense of opportunity for those living on the streets. Radical Hospitality permeates all of Lava Mae’s work. From the way guests are treated, with warmth and open arms, to programmatic decisions. Even calling the people they serve their “guests” is Radical Hospitality in action. Sharing in Lava Mae’s belief that cleanliness is a gateway to rekindled dignity and optimism, Dr. Bronner’s has been an early supporter, providing both in-kind soap and financial donations.

Lava Mae’s Evolution

Lava Mae was started in 2013 by San Francisco resident, Doniece Sandoval after witnessing the struggle of her unhoused neighbors firsthand. She watched as three long-time residents in her neighborhood, each in their 80’s, were evicted and forced to live in their cars. Soon after these abrupt evictions, their cars were repossessed, forcing these former neighbors onto the street. Despite earnest attempts by Doniece and her community to connect these residents with city services, each of them died homeless.

For Doniece, this powerful personal experience was crystallized after walking past a homeless woman slumped on the sidewalk crying and repeating to herself that she will “never get clean.”

As Doniece grappled with ways to make an impact for the homeless population, this problem of cleanliness on the street stuck with her. At the time, San Francisco had over 7,000 people experiencing homelessness and only 16 part-time shower facilities. As luck would have it, Doniece saw an unlikely opportunity—decommissioned SFMTA busses. Inspired by the food truck scene, she figured if delicious high-end foods like crème brûlée, could be made on a truck, why couldn’t buses become hygienic solutions? And it was in those moments that the first Lava Mae mobile showers were conceived.

More than just a shower

With over 36,000+ showers taken by more than 10,000 guests, it’s become abundantly clear that Lava Mae’s impact is much more than a shower. Cleanliness is a gateway to restored optimism, “you feel like a brand new person,” says Jessica. “You feel completely refreshed and revived and ready for a brand new day.”

Randy’s story proves just that: he had been a guest of Lava Mae for over a year and eventually started volunteering daily at the mobile showers. Eventually, Randy was able to get a space (and shower) of his own, though his commitment to Lava Mae remains steadfast.

Today, Lava Mae has moved from using decommissioned buses to building mobile shower trailers, which offer greater capacity and flexibility. These units operate six days a week in San Francisco, with each shower guest receiving a personal hygiene kit complete with fresh soap, shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste, and other critical items for cleanliness.

And Lava Mae continues to expand their impact! They have been working in L.A. since 2016 and recently expanded to Oakland.

Open-source empathy

What makes us at Dr. Bronner’s particularly excited to partner with Lava Mae is their commitment to helping others spread Radical Hospitality and empathy for those experiencing homelessness. In 2017, Lava Mae launched buildIt, a substantial project—the first-ever open source toolkit and platform to help people replicate Lava Mae’s signature mobile hygiene service in their own communities.

In the first six months since buildIt’s launch, Lava Mae’s mobile hygiene replication toolkit has been downloaded by over 600 people across 10 countries. And before that, Lava Mae’s work inspired nearly 50 other mobile hygiene programs across the U.S. and abroad modeled after theirs. They’ve inspired replication everywhere from Honolulu, Brooklyn, and St. Louis, to Italy, India, and Australia. And many more new mobile shower services are in the works!

Taking Radical Hospitality to the streets

Back at the January San Francisco Pop-Up Care Village, guests were warmly welcomed promptly at 10 and encouraged to meet with whatever service provider they needed. Or if the guests were just looking to relax, Lava Mae encouraged them to enjoy the warm breakfast, grab some new free clothes, and settle in. Watching her partner Chase get a haircut and beard trim, Lava Mae guest Jen laughed, “this guy” referring to the barber, “always gives him such a good cut. And when [Chase] is done, he has a pep in his step. Sometimes too much!” It’s a great problem to have, a problem that Jen says will help Chase get a job soon.

In action, Radical Hospitality includes a level of trust that allows guests to take care of what they want. Guests are welcome to visit any service providers that interest them, and volunteers are also on hand to help any guest who needs more personal assistance with navigating Pop-Up Care Village stations. Even the shower time is not capped. While showers are designed to be 15 minutes per person, Lava Mae recognizes that people have varying needs and physical limitations and works to accommodate their guests. As Josh Hayes, the mobile services manager says “Radical Hospitality means doing everything we can to ensure our guests leave feeling better than when they arrived.”

Lava Mae created the Pop-Up Care Village in 2016 after hearing how their guests were struggling to access the services they needed.  While a city like San Francisco has many service providers for basic needs, it can be difficult and time-consuming for people to actually receive these services. Providers are often backlogged, in various locations throughout the city, and typically require unnecessary paperwork duplication.

In response, Lava Mae created the Pop-up Care Villages to bring different providers together and make it easy for guests to access the help they need. For example, to reduce the amount of duplicate paperwork, every guest receives a simple blue “passport” that acts as their identification and entry for the event. One piece of paperwork and still, each service provider can track who they helped.

That January morning alone, the Pop-Up Care Village had 363 guests attend and enjoy free meals. Nearly ⅓ picked out some new clothes at the Street Store and nearly 90 had medical consultations. As guests exited the Village they were asked if they felt better than when they arrived, “yes, absolutely” was the recurring refrain.

As the event came to a close, staff and volunteers packed up the tents and the space returned to the street. Randy remarked with a smile on his face, “I’m always tired after these,” as he packed up and headed home.

You can learn more about Lava Mae by visiting their website at www.lavamae.org and hear Randy tell his story in this video by CNN.

 

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Amy Lipner

Amy helps purpose-driven companies amplify their message using creative conversion copywriting. A former lawyer, Amy fiercely believes that words power change. She also believes the best way to conquer a fear of heights is to start rock climbing.

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  • Zee Kaazim

    Wonderful show of compassion.

  • Jah LoveIrit

    This is truly wonderful.