Empathizing with the Homeless: San Francisco Woman Goes a Week Without A Shower

A man roots through the garbage at the 16th street BART stop in San Francisco. (Keith Menconi/KQED)

A man roots through the garbage at the 16th street BART stop in San Francisco. (Keith Menconi/KQED)

By Polly Stryker

You know how you feel when you’ve been camping and haven’t showered? After a couple days, your body feels sweaty and ripe; your hair feels greasy. As you start to head home, you begin craving a shower — the soap, the hot water, the clean towel. It’s likely the first thing you do when you get home.

But homeless people live a different reality every day. For them, cleaning up depends on making it to a public shower somewhere across town, with a long line, only open during certain hours. Keeping clean is a nearly impossible challenge.

San Franciscan Donice Sandoval started thinking deeply about this question one day two years ago when she was walking near the Design Center in San Francisco. She saw a homeless woman under the 101 overpass crying, terribly upset that she would never be clean. Sandoval had always felt moved and saddened when she saw people who were homeless. Seeing the woman gave her an idea. Since clean bathrooms and showers are so hard for homeless people to get to, why not bring showers to them?

And so Sandoval created a nonprofit Lava Mae, a play on the Spanish word for “wash me,” to help the homeless.

Sandoval recently described her mission to KQED’s Joshua Johnson. San Francisco’s 3,400 homeless people have access to just 16 shower stalls, at different places around the city. Just getting to them can be tough. Also, not all homeless shelters have showers. Surprisingly, some emergency family and winter shelters don’t have showers.

But how to go about it? Sandoval knew church groups had converted mobile homes or horse trailers into mobile showers. Sandoval had a different idea — what about old Muni busses?

In early 2012, Sandoval began working with various city departments which ultimately donated four decommissioned Muni busses. She plans to retrofit the busses with two showers and two toilets each. The idea is that the busses will pull up to homeless service agencies, hook up to water via fire hydrants, and start “delivering dignity, one shower at a time,” as Sandoval puts it. The first bus should be ready to roll in early 2014.

That’s her project’s blueprint, but Sandoval wanted to take things one step further. She felt she needed to get some sense of what it’s like to go without bathing for an extended period. She issued herself a “No Shower Challenge” — a week without a shower. Sure, it was a way to draw attention to her cause. But it was also a way to try and walk the walk, even if Sandoval isn’t homeless.

Sandoval has been a neat-freak ever since her childhood in Texas. “When I was a little girl, I would go out and play, and if I got dirty, my mother would bring me back in the house, and I might get tossed in the bathtub.” Sandoval’s mother sometimes changed her daughter’s clothes three times a day. In other words, going without a shower for an extended period of time was going to be tough.

I stayed in touch with her throughout the week. Her ground rules? No showers. No rinsing off in her sink. “I’m using wipes as best I can. I’m using a lot of deodorant and body lotion,” she told me. Day one was no problem.

On day two, she began to feel sticky. She brushed her teeth at home and in public places, but otherwise she only cleaned up in public restrooms — for example patting her hair down with water to try and give it a bit of shape. On day three, Sandoval started sleeping in a sleep sack, “to spare my husband my dirty sheets.” Her six-year-old daughter told her she smelled. On day five, Sandoval thought about wearing a hat, because her hair felt so nasty. By day six, she began obsessing about sweat glands and germs.

While she used a lot of wipes, they weren’t much help. “Everybody talks about how great wipes are. I have friends who go camping. And I think that compared to being out in the wilderness and having nothing else, it’s really satisfactory. But when you’re around people who are cleaning themselves up in a shower or bath, and you’re using wipes, it’s just not the same. It’s like a layer of something that stays on you.”

Later in the week, she said she felt like the wipes were just smearing dirt around her body. She felt increasingly itchy and oily. By day six, Sandoval couldn’t wait to wash her hair and told me that she felt like she was walking around with “a shelacked thing of grime on my scalp.”

Doniece took a shower at midnight on the seventh day. She washed her hair four times. She says she would do it again, if it helped her to raise funds. But, “from an empathy perspective, I think this one experience gave me a sole sense of how hard and demoralizing it is to be dirty.”

A clean and happy Doniece Sandoval after completing her "No Shower Challenge." (Photo: Sadik Huseny)

A clean and happy Doniece Sandoval after completing her “No Shower Challenge.” (Photo: Sadik Huseny)

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