Evan DuCharme/Special to The S.F. ExaminerA woman walks past an art installation on 10th and Market streets on Thursday.

Plan to use decommissioned Muni buses for showers gains traction

Word that a Muni bus will soon be retrofitted with showers for the homeless has spread around the blocks of San Francisco, and the project’s founder used World Toilet Day to raise even more public awareness.

Doniece Sandoval got rolling on the idea last year to convert a worn-out city bus into Lava Mae, or “lava me,” meaning “wash me” in Spanish. The name was replaced with “Mae” to reflect the way people often refer to vehicles as feminine.

The 51-year-old marketing and communications professional planned to use World Toilet Day on Tuesday to display and auction half a dozen decorated toilets, but a couple days of rain delayed her until Thursday.

“People talk about the bus as showers but not as toilets,” said Sandoval. “We want to make people aware that we need more toilets in general and Lava Mae is responding by having toilets on the bus.”

Showers and toilets were already part of the idea Sandoval called “overly ambitious” because it originally included an on-board haircut and self-grooming station. Sandoval’s inspiration arose after walking past a homeless woman who cried expressing her desire to be clean, and seeing trendy mobile food trucks.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has already donated one of four promised buses decommissioned as hybrids have started to replace the fleet. Through a combination of fundraising and private donors, Sandoval has raised $200,000 of the $340,000 needed to retrofit Lava Mae by January. She hopes to run a pilot program as soon as late March.

City agency officials say Sandoval has not finished filing paperwork but they are confident the project will get the green light.

Sandoval is seeking a water meter from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission that would allow construction contractors access to potable fire hydrants, which are different than those used by fire trucks.

“This is the first that I’m aware of where we’ve had a nonprofit serving multiple benefits, so we’re absolutely supportive if it’s done right,” said PUC spokesman Tyrone Jue. “It would be pretty straightforward to use for anyone who’s had some basic training.”

Lava Mae will also require a temporary occupancy permit, to be renewed on an annual basis, from the Department of Public Works, according to spokeswoman Rachel Gordon.

San Francisco’s homeless population at the beginning of the year – 6,436 – is consistent with the last couple of years, according to Bevan Dufty, homeless czar for Mayor Ed Lee. With as few as 16 showers available for the homeless in The City, Lava Mae is “uplifting,” Dufty said.

“People helping the homeless connect to hygiene is a big step,” Dufty said. “And hopefully it will help more people out of homelessness.”

Sandoval said 99 percent of people she’s shared the idea with are thrilled and see Lava Mae as a positive.

But, she lamented, “There’s also a small percentage of people that said I should use the bus to ship the homeless out of The City.”

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