2015 Summit

The woman who’s bringing the “transformative” experience of taking a shower to homeless people in an inventive way

As many as 3.5 million people in the United States experience homelessness in a given year, and many great organizations across the country work to combat the problem. But one woman is tackling the issue on an exceptionally incremental level.

Toyota’s Mother of Invention Doniece Sandoval, founder of Lava Mae, spoke Thursday at the Women in the World Summit about how she’s transforming buses into showers on wheels with the hope “to empower and bring dignity to homeless people around the country.”

“When you think about the challenges around access to water and sanitation, you think about third-world countries,” Sandoval said. “You don’t think about the United States. Hundreds of thousands of unsheltered individuals in our country struggle to get clean, struggle to shower, struggle to find a toilet.”

Sandoval said she was inspired to start Lava Mae—the name takes off on the Spanish for “wash me”—after learning that there were only 16 shower stalls for the 3,500 plus men, women and children who live on the streets of San Francisco. She was given

She reasoned that if gourmet food could be made on trucks, putting showers and toilets on wheels should be doable, too. That’s when she read that the city was investing in new buses, and that she could get decommissioned vehicles for $75,000 a pop.

She ran with the idea.

“Having a shower is so important,” said Inocente Izucar, who spoke about an act that many in America blithely take for granted. Izucar, formerly a homeless teen whose story was documented in the 2013 Oscar-winning short film Inocente, said, “We do it so normally that we forget that it’s a privilege.”

“The first opportunity to get in the shower I totally believe is transformative,” Sandoval said.

Lava Mae is currently only operating in the San Francisco area but has plans to expand soon. Sandoval reports that she has been contacted by hundreds of organizations looking to bring her buses to their cities. She will launch Lava Mae Global in 2016.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is independent of and separate from any views of The New York Times.