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For San Francisco’s homeless, sanitation facilities on wheels

Bathroom facilities in buses are one nonprofit’s response to human rights and public health concerns

A San Francisco nonprofit aims to launch a cavalcade of buses to help solve persistent public health concerns caused by a lack of bathroom facilities for the city’s homeless.

The organization Lava Mae, whose name is a playful rendition of the Spanish for “wash me,” is converting old city buses into showers and toilets for the homeless — two sets of each per bus.

Lava Mae currently offers showers on wheels to the homeless as part of what founder Doniece Sandoval said is a pilot program. The Lava Mae bus facilities are available on weekends in the Mission district, an area that has traditionally seen high numbers of the city’s economically marginalized.

Lava Mae’s services are offered in conjunction with a similar program run by the Mission Neighborhood Rescue Center (MNRC), which advocates for the homeless. It is one of seven centers around the city offering bathroom facilities for a population of well over 6,000 homeless people — on weekdays only. In providing the homeless with dozens of showers on weekends by hooking buses up to fire hydrants, Lava Mae is helping close the gap in what Sandoval and the United Nations call a human right: access to water.

Lava Mae pays for each drop of water and is looking at various technologies to lower its environmental footprint, especially at a time when California is suffering from a crippling drought.

San Francisco has had problems with the lack of bathroom options for the homeless. A downtown San Francisco BART station in 2012 shut down its escalators for several months after they were clogged by human feces, believed to be from the city’s sizable homeless population.

“When you have a shortage of places people can go, people do what's necessary, not because they want to but because they don't have a choice,” Sandoval said.

In February, Al Jazeera reported that the city was spending $1.3 million a year to clean downtown sidewalks covered in excrement and other matter. Some homeless people reported that they have seen workers hose down homeless people who allegedly did not move after being asked to make way before the street cleanings.

Each Lava Mae bus will cost $75,000 to refurbish, according to the organization.

But the director of the city government’s Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement program, Bevan Dufty, said in February of the sidewalk-cleaning program that creating more “housing for people is more financially efficient than trying to maintain clean, safe streets in people’s minds.”

Sandoval believes local government could have developed alternative plans to deal with health concerns and homelessness.

“I definitely think this is something that our government should be providing for its citizens,” she said, “I'm just one small example of citizens seeing problems not addressed by local government, and we are coming to the table with new solutions. I'm hoping this is something that will turn the tide on how we see these problems.”

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