But as mentioned in a previous story about a pop-up public urinal-garden hybrid being tested out in the full-bladdered City by the Bay, there technically are a decent number of those fancy automated pay toilets scattered about town, mostly in well-trafficked tourist zones. Following a warm reception and several years of actual usefulness, the units, installed in the mid-90s, fell into decline and were eventually repurposed into squalor kiosks where the business at hand involves drugs and prostitution, not number ones and twos. Currently, hardly anyone — not tourists, residents, or the city’s sizable homeless population — bothers to step inside the filth-encrusted comfort stations.
Particularly affected by San Francisco’s lack of clean public facilities are that last, marginalized group mentioned above: the homeless. While others might have the luxury of ducking into a hotel lobby or holding it until they get home, this isn’t quite the case with those living on the streets. And as those who have passed through a Tenderloin alleyway on a hot summer day could tell you, the situation all-around stinks.
In addition to the aforementioned plant-topped pop-up urinals tested conceived by Oakland-based Hyphae Design Laboratory, other solution-minded parties have stepped in to help remedy the city’s notorious public bathroom woes.
Among them is PR and marketing veteran Doniece Sandoval who, through the magic of crowdfunding and deep-pocked partners such as Google, has converted a decommisssioned MUNI bus into a roving bathroom-on-wheels that’s dedicated to “Delivering Dignity … One Shower at a Time.”
The retrofitted bus just doesn’t offer San Francisco's homeless residents a clean and private commode to hit up when nature calls. As nonprofit startup Lava Mae's motto clearly spells out, inside the bus you’ll find two full skylight-lit bathrooms complete with digitally controlled showers, sinks, and small changing areas. As the bus travels from location to location, it connects to public fire hydrants as a water source. Hot water for the sinks and showers is supplied via 50-gallon propane-fueled hot water tank located aboard the bus.
Although the sanitation aspect is important to Lava Mae’s mission, it’s access to a means of personal hygiene that truly sets this do-gooding nonprofit apart. As the Lava Mae website explains, there are only 8 shower facilities, each with one or two shower stalls, to be found in a city with well over 7,000 homeless residents.
The Lava Mae prototype bus was refurbished under the supervision of lead designer/architect, Brett Terpeluk. Numerous local and national companies chipped in and helped transform the mid-1990s era diesel vehicle into a mobile WC: Sacramento-based Airco dealt with the nitty-gritty including the installation of mechanical systems, Continental Tire helped to get the bus rolling again, and last but not least, Kohler, donated the faucets and fixtures found in each of the bus-bound bathrooms. The total conversion cost for the prototype Lava Mae bus was $75,000.
So why exactly a bus and not a more permanent, less confined structure? Lava Mae explains:
In a city like San Francisco, where real estate prices are exploding, mobile ensures that our service isn't subject to rising rents and potential evictions. And perhaps more importantly, going mobile gives us the flexibility to reach the homeless who are scattered throughout our city.
As for “stops,” the Lava Mae bus won’t exactly be pulling over in random spots across the city whenever a person who looks like he or she could benefit from a bit of washing-up is spotted on the street by a driver. Lava Mae is working with partner nonprofits to help take the strain off of existing shower facilities while servicing different neighborhoods — on certain days, the bus will park near/outside these organizations for an established period of time during which those who need or want to use the facilities, available in 10-minute sessions, can feel free to do so. The logistics (i.e. scheduling the sessions) is handled by the partner organizations.
If all goes well during a pilot run that launches this weekend and if additional funding is secured, Sandoval hopes to see five Lava Mae buses in operation by next spring — adding a total of 10 full mobile bathrooms. With five buses in operation, Lava Mae anticipates that upwards of 2,000 potentially life-changing showers per week would be provided to San Francisco's homeless population while also providing them with a free, safe, and clean place to turn when nature just happens to call ... no more ducking into alleyways or risking the pay toilets.
Sandoval, who was inspired to found Lava Mae partly by San Francisco's booming food truck scene, tells CBS San Francisco: “With hygiene comes dignity, and with dignity comes opportunity. So hopefully, it will open other doors for people.”
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