A Lava Mae volunteer helps a San Fransisco man.
credit: Sole Moller/ insp.ngo

In 2013, San Francisco was deep in a food-truck craze that inspired one woman to meet the needs of the homeless community with mobile units. Doniece Sandoval used the crowdfunding site Indiegogo to raise funds that would turn a de-commissioned city bus into a mobile hygiene station for the city’s 3,000-person homeless community. She called the service Lava Mae. Lava Mae buses are installed with toilets, hot showers, and other hygiene materials for homeless individuals who have limited access to such resources.

One of Lava Mae’s driving values is that hygiene is essential to have dignity and opportunity.

Soon the District may bring dignity to homeless residents through a service similar to Lava Mae, but with one key difference: it will be funded by city government. At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange proposed the Mobile Hygiene Pilot Program Amendment Act of 2015 in September, reported Washington City Paper. The pilot program would begin with one city-owned bus, recommissioned as a mobile hygiene service for people experiencing homelessness. The Department of Human Services (DHS) would be required to implement the program within 120 days of approval. DHS would then have 2 years and $200,000 to spend on the pilot while also raising funds for a more permanent program. Should the pilot program prove successful, seven more buses would be commissioned so that each city ward could benefit it from its own bus.

Many homeless advocates in D.C. are enthused by Orange’s proposed legislation. One of those is Marcy Bernbaum, of the People for Fairness Coalition, who praised the pilot program for expanding access to hygiene facilities in an email exchange with City Paper. “Unless you know the area, you will have a hard time finding a restroom that will let you in during the day and evening,” she said.

However, there is criticism of the proposed legislation as well. Miriam’s Kitchen Advocacy Director Kurt Runge believes funds for the pilot program would be more effective if put toward District housing efforts instead, though he acknowledged that the mobile service could serve “important basic needs” short-term.

“People need a home of their own to take care of their personal needs. Although providing showers could meet an important need, how many people could get into housing with the funding that would be required to operate it? Are there other unmet needs that should take priority?” Runge said, also in an email to City Paper.

The bill was referred to the Committee on Health and Human Services and Committee of the Whole, according to a spokesperson for Councilmember Orange. If the pilot program is commissioned, then D.C. will join the ranks of other cities where mobile hygiene programs in the style of Lava Mae have emerged, such as Honolulu and New York.