Sanitation

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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. Continue reading