Over 550,000 people experience homelessness in the United States. The day-to-day challenges of living without a stable home are daunting: how, for example, can a person save money on bulk food if there’s nowhere to store it? And the battle to change one’s circumstances can seem even tougher: how, for instance, can someone show up to a job interview if they don’t have access to a shower and a haircut? After witnessing the effects of eviction and gentrification in her San Francisco neighborhood, Doniece Sandoval recognized these barriers to change, and wanted to help her hometown’s homeless citizens regain their sense of dignity.

An article about the city’s plans to replace its public buses sparked an idea. Sandoval founded Lava Mae, beginning with the idea of converting the retired city buses into mobile hygiene units that provide shower and toilet services for those who lack them. Those services are infused with the ethos of Radical Hospitality; staff and volunteers create relationships with those they serve, learning names and stories. Over time, Lava Mae has added “Pop-Up Care Villages” that bring doctors, dentists, and hairdressers into the mix. They’ve also expanded into Los Angeles, thus providing a reliable schedule of services across two of California’s major cities.

Without Tides, our tiny team would never have been able to undertake such an ambitious project. Knowing that we had Tides to manage our HR, finance and legal needs allowed us to focus on shaping and implementing our mission to deliver mobile hygiene and rekindle dignity for people experiencing homelessness.

Doniece Sandoval, Founder/CEO, Lava Mae

When Lava Mae first came to Tides as a fiscally sponsored social venture in 2014, they were operating with a very small staff and a shoestring budget. They’d just finished their agreement with the San Francisco Metropolitan Transit Authority and received their donated public buses, which was a huge step forward. What they needed was help laying the groundwork for a successful program that would certainly face logistical and operational challenges. Tides, as a well-known fiscal sponsor in the Bay Area, combined its local knowledge with management experience to help Lava Mae put their ideas into practice smoothly and effectively. Tides jumped in to assist with all aspects of Lava Mae’s operations: HR, tracking finances, creating vendor contracts, managing insurance needs, and advising on interactions with city officials for essential services, like the public water that made their mobile hygiene services possible.

With Tides as a partner, Lava Mae successfully launched its programs and expanded quickly in terms of budget, team, and impact: after two years of incubation and support, the organization was ready to become its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit. To date, Lava Mae has serviced more than 10,000 individuals, who have taken more than 30,000 showers in the organization’s mobile units. New commercial trailers provide expanded opportunities for showers and toilets. Former clients have found homes and become volunteers themselves. Beyond its on-the-ground operations, Lava Mae has inspired new mobile hygiene projects around the world, codifying their knowledge into toolkits for those who wish to start their own program. And, importantly, they’ve created wider awareness about the issue of hygiene needs for homeless populations.

With a ton of heart that they call Radical Hospitality, Lava Mae creates human contact and acknowledgement for those who often feel invisible – and they do so with creativity and optimism. Their work exemplifies the kind of partnership that Tides seeks out: innovative, collaborative, and deeply committed.