Jefferson Award Winner Founded Lava MaeBy Allen Martin

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Michael Thornton may have lost his home, but he never lost his self-esteem. The now housed San Francisco resident made staying clean a top priority even when he was living on the streets.

“I am the type that I got to stay clean,” explained Thornton. “Just because you are homeless don’t mean you have to be dirty and smelly.”

Thanks to the non-profit Lava Mae, Thornton and many others living without housing are able to shower. After using its services for years, Thornton now volunteers for the organization that started providing free hot showers and clean bathrooms in 2014.

Lava Mae’s founder Doniece Sandoval came up with the idea after seeing the number of homeless increase dramatically. The 20-year Western Addition resident says she was shocked to learn there were only 16 public showers and toilets for about 7500 homeless residents in San Francisco.

Sandoval sought funding and acquired decommissioned Muni buses, turning the buses into mobile shower units. Tasteful fixtures, high-end products and towels are all part of what Sandoval calls “radical hospitality.”

“The whole experience was designed to say to people: you are worthy. You have value. We see you and we care,” said Sandoval. “To really see and acknowledge these individuals as our neighbors, as fellow human beings with similar hopes and dreams is something that they rarely get.”

Now thanks to even more generous donations, the converted Muni buses have given way to custom commercial shower trailers. Five days a week, the trailers are taken to 7 locations in the city. And now pop-up care villages surround the trailers providing additional services like free clothing, haircuts, legal advice, and even yoga. Regular guests like Richard Gladle are grateful.

“It’s a little bit more of a self-esteem thing,” explained Gladle. “When a person is clean, they practice regular hygiene and I love Lava Mae.”

Sandoval says Lava Mae has spread beyond the Bay Area. The non-profit has directly helped or inspired 115 other communities to create similar homeless shower programs, and it has provided more than 64,000 showers to 15,000 unhoused Californians.

So for providing the unhoused with a way to stay clean and cared for, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Doniece Sandoval.