Lava Mae is not typical. It’s a group that has been in operation for only a couple months, but they’ve been written about in newspapers all over the world. Many people want to replicate their system. As a Tides project, we couldn’t be more proud of them.

What they’re doing is very simple. They’re providing mobile showers and bathrooms for homeless people around San Francisco. Many homeless service organizations have been forced out of this city, and yet Doniece Sandoval and her team are changing the tide.

How did they do it? I talked to Doniece, the founder, to learn more.


  • They tell a good story. Lava Mae has converted a MUNI bus, decommissioned after years in public transportation, into shower and bathroom stalls. Doniece, who has a PR and marketing background, explains, “To take an icon in the city of something people love to hate, the MUNI bus, and do something radically different with it, I knew would make a great story. That’s what PR and marketing is all about- a good story.”
  • They’re supported by Tides as their fiscal sponsor. “One of the things that was really important to us was to have more flexibility in terms of being able to focus on the service and not so much the administrative end of things. So having a fiscal sponsor with an excellent reputation that provided end to end services- you know, anything from great legal support, issues around insurance, things like that- it really lightened our load to get out on the street faster. We didn’t have to incorporate and figure out how to manage all those details ourselves. And then when I was doing the research, I found Tides is one of the most respected fiscal sponsors on the planet, so it was kind of natural to reach out and want to be under their umbrella.”
  • They provide real solutions. They are challenging prejudices towards homeless people by reducing barriers to applying for housing and jobs, because with hygiene comes dignity, and with dignity comes opportunity. As an example, on the day of their launch, KTVU came to interview one of their guests. “He refused to be interviewed before he showered because he was too embarrassed. They caught him afterwards and he talked about how he was a machinist from Detroit… He goes to these [job] interviews and his nails are dirty or he doesn’t quite smell as fresh as he’d like to and it’s been an obstacle for him to get a job. That piece ran on the weekend, and on Monday I go to my office and there’s an email from a guy who works at Tesla who wants to help Monte find a job. So we’re trying to find Monte.” For better or worse, people are given more opportunities when they’re clean and ‘presentable.’
  • Their mobility makes them flexible. “We want to go where people are, and if you look at a map of showers in the city, it’s pretty concentrated to the central parts, and yet we know there are homeless people throughout the city. So being mobile provides the ability to get to them. The other thing is that almost every nonprofit we know has a lease coming up in the next year or two and is terrified that they’re not going to keep a roof over their head because they can’t compete with these companies that can pay so much more. We’ve got a bus so we don’t have to worry about that.”
  • They stay tenacious because of personal connections to homelessness. “Walking outside my door and seeing neighbors who had homes but moved from their homes to their cars and then the streets made me feel really compelled to make this work no matter how hard it was, and walking through neighborhoods like this and being reminded that not a single one of these people, when they were little, dreamed of being homeless.”


Congratulations, Lava Mae, for creating a model that is helping destigmatize homelessness by acknowledging people’s humanity and potential, and may others replicate your success. To support Lava Mae’s work click here.


-Jenna Spagnolo