The Lava Mae team, from left: Ebony Lynn, Amber Wise, Paul Asplund, Colton CotyEXPAND
The Lava Mae team, from left: Ebony Lynn, Amber Wise, Paul Asplund, Colton Coty
Gary Walker

Lava Mae: Restoring Dignity, One Shower at a Time

For a sizable number of Los Angeles’ homeless people, opportunities to maintain a personal hygiene schedule can be tricky. That’s where Lava Mae comes in.

The San Francisco–based mobile shower and restroom nonprofit began serving Los Angeles two years ago in downtown Los Angeles at Skid Row, in Venice and at least three other locations. And now it's offering entrepreneurs a chance to join it in helping the more than 53,000 people without shelter in Los Angeles County.

Next month, the nonprofit will be holding its first training session for potential new mobile shower operators.

“So far we’ve identified at least half a dozen organizations who will be joining our first class,” said Paul Asplund, Lava Mae's director of partnerships and development.

The nonprofit transforms converted buses and trailers into a rolling hygiene station, dispensing toiletries and sometimes clothes as well as showers.

Joshua Dementer is familiar with Lava Mae. Now a homeless resident of Venice Beach, he lived for a time in San Francisco and noted how spacious and clean the Lava Mae showers were in comparison to others that serve the homeless population.

“Even though there are drop-in centers and places that do provide showers, if you actually go to them they’re really kind of dilapidated and have a lot of mold infestation,” he said. “And there are people who are hindered from going to those places, but this brings the showers to them.”

Lava Mae representatives say they have delivered more than 52,000 showers since its inception in 2014.

The bright blue and white buses are equipped with three shower compartments, a sink and a toilet.

Asplund says nonprofits tend to be the best potential newcomers for this type of mobile service, because a trailer with shower areas, a sink and a toilet can cost as much as $100,000.

“There are ways to reduce that cost, but the trailers are the most expensive item. The other challenge is sustainability and day-to-day expenses,” he said.

In the early days Lava Mae used reconditioned buses or small trailers but now it uses trailers that are already equipped with restroom and hygiene facilities. They also have to be complaint with the American Disabilities Act.

New operators will not fly under Lava Mae’s banner; they will be creating their own service.

“We provide on-site experience and knowledge,” Asplund said. "We've learned from our mistakes and what we’ve learned is valuable, so I think we have a lot to offer about this community-based opportunity.”

Practicing good hygiene can reduce the spread of communicable diseases.

Comparing frequent handwashing to a “do-it-yourself’ vaccine,” the Centers for Disease Control and Protection says the practice of handwashing can “reduce the spread of diarrheal and respiratory illness so you can stay healthy.

“Regular handwashing, particularly before and after certain activities, is one of the best ways to remove germs, avoid getting sick, and prevent the spread of germs to others,” the center’s website states.

“It’s quick, it's simple, and it can keep us all from getting sick.”

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a statewide hepatitis A epidemic after several cases were found among homeless encampments in San Diego and then spread to Los Angeles.

Providing the conditions for good hygiene can be good public policy as well as part of a government’s responsibility to its citizens, say public health and elected officials.

“Those most vulnerable to hepatitis A are illicit drug users and the homeless, who often do not have access to regular hygiene,” said California Dept. of Health deputy director Dr. Gil Chavez. “Anything that can be done to improve the sanitary conditions is a good idea, among especially the homeless population, which is a high-risk population.”

Eleventh District City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Westside neighborhoods including Venice, brought Lava Mae to Venice in 2016 and sees it as a city's moral obligation to provide homeless people a place to shower in a clean setting.

“Hygiene is a human right. It gives people dignity and gives people a much better opportunity to look for a job or an apartment when they’re clean and presentable,” he said.

When Bonin and his colleagues voted last year to allow San Francisco–based mobile porta-potty Pit Stop to serve Venice at a county parking lot at Horizon Avenue and Ocean Front Walk, the councilman referenced the hepatitis A epidemic. “Providing clean and safe restroom access is a matter of basic decency — and smart public health policy,” Bonin said after submitting a Sept. 26 council motion to request funds.

“The recent public health crisis is another frightening reminder of the real costs of continued inaction. We cannot allow red tape to prolong suffering. We must act now to offer people safe places to use the restroom and get cleaned up,” he said.

Lava Mae’s first Los Angeles training session for new operators will take place on Wednesday, Aug. 1, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, 525 S. Hewitt St., downtown.

Pre-registration is required, and anyone interested in learning more can contact Tracy Korpela at replication@lavamae.org or (415) 660-7425.

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