Guests using Lava Mae in San Francisco. Photo: Lava Mae

Debra Banta went into the shower space wearing a multi-colored Avengers hat, a black San Francisco Giants shirt trimmed in orange, and dark faded jeans.

She came out with her hair washed, without a hat, wearing a blue button-up, long-sleeved shirt, and newer jeans. The transformation called for a double-take.

“Having a shower is an awesome thing, said Banta. “And they do it like it’s their pleasure.”

“They” is Lava Mae, the nonprofit homeless service and advocacy group that provides portable showers in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco, giving homeless folks the chance to do something non-homeless people take for granted.

Lava Mae, a non-profit, started offering mobile showers in Berkeley in May and does not charge the city for its services. For the people washing up at its two sites, the service is indispensable.

“They give dignity back to people, and they do it with grace,” said Banta, who turns 60 next month. She’s become a regular at Lava Mae’s portable hygiene unit near Second and Cedar streets in Berkeley.

Banta was evicted from her Richmond home more than a year ago, given just five days to get out, which forced her to to have to cancel a scheduled hernia surgery she hasn’t been able to reschedule. Nevertheless, she’s all smiles.

“These are awesome people,” she said.

Lava Mae was founded in 2013 when San Francisco resident and marketing specialist Doniece Sandoval saw what gentrification was doing to her Western Addition neighborhood.

“After we came back from the recession, the neighborhood changed,” Sandoval said. “I watched all the African American men in their 80s get pushed out and sleep in their cars.”

Sandoval did some research and discovered her city only had 16 shower stalls available to its homeless population. “We were a city that has hundreds of millionaires per square mile.” She then had an epiphany during a taxi ride through the Tenderloin, when the driver said, “welcome to the land of broken dreams.”

“I looked out the window and saw people who, when they were little, never had any idea they would be in this situation,” she said.

Within a year, Sandoval hatched an idea to transform discarded public buses into portable shower and toilet facilities, and Lava Mae was born. Eventually, the company expanded the portable operations into trailers pulled by large pick-up trucks. The goal was to provide 75,000 showers to 30,000 homeless people in California by the end of 2020.

They recently reached their goal, more than a year ahead of schedule.

Lava Mae’s growth could hardly happen in a better region at a better time. The Bay Area has the third-largest homeless population in the U.S., behind New York City and Los Angeles, according to a study released in April by the Bay Area Economic Institute. In Berkeley, there are about 1,108 homeless people, according to a point-in-time count done by EveryOneHome in January. That’s a 14% increase from 2017. The vast majority of those without permanent places in Berkeley are unsheltered, as Berkeley only has 289 shelter beds. They sleep and live on the street, in doorways, cars and in RVs, which means they don’t have easy access to showers.

Lava Mae offers showers in two locations in Berkeley: On Mondays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Progressive Baptist Church parking lot on Alcatraz Avenue and King Street, and on Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Second and Cedar streets, where Banta has become a staff favorite.

“You’re the reason we stay here,” Lava Mae’s mobile services manager Josh Hayes told Banta, after giving her a post-shower hug. “You spread the word. People trust you.”

Getting people to use the showers has been a slow process, according to a recent staff information report that the City Council will consider soon. (It was continued from its Sept. 10 meeting). City Councilwomen Lori Droste and Cheryl Davila both individually pushed the city to launch a pilot project with Lava Mae, and the report takes a look at whether the partnership should be deepened.

When the report was written, about seven guests came to take showers at the Second and Cedar street location each week and eight turned up to the South Berkeley location. But numbers have improved in the last few weeks, according to Lava Mae employees. The Second and Cedar streets location, which is close by the Pathways Navigation Center, now averages 25 to 30 guests on Thursdays, Hayes said. Capacity is 40 to 45 people.

“This location was empty for weeks,” said Hayes, as customers moved around him to go through clothes donations. “Then all of a sudden word got around and it really picked up after six weeks. People saw that we weren’t weirdos.”

In an August article in Street Spirit, a newspaper that focuses on homeless issues, Timothy Busby wrote that many people in the homeless community didn’t seem to know about Lava Mae’s existence. Those who knew about it did not know its hours of operation, Busby wrote.

Busby looked for information about the mobile showers at the Berkeley Public Library and on the city’s homeless resource page but found nothing. He finally contacted Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s office where a staff person referred him to, where the hours are listed.

“Without contacting the mayor’s office, how would someone living in the streets find the showers?” Busby wrote.

Matthai Chakko, a city spokesman, said not everyone living on the streets has access to the Internet. The city has found that direct outreach — going out into neighborhoods and talking directly to people — is the most effective way to distribute information. It is labor-intensive, but it works, he said.

“When Lava Mae came to town, our homeless outreach team went throughout the city and distributed flyers,” Chakko said in an email. “We also routinely have staff talk to people who are unhoused about available resources, including showers.”

Lava Mae mobile services manager Scott Hayes and guest Debra Banta, at the company’s mobile hygiene trailer at Second and Cedar streets. Photo: Tony Hicks

Word of mouth factors heavily into establishing a site, Hayes said. Trust is key. After the company scouts locations and consults with local officials, they go into the area to distribute hygiene kits and get to know the community. The sites are selected based on proximity to current known homeless encampments around the city, ability to accommodate the company’s large truck and trailer, and nearby water and sewer infrastructure.

Homeless people are subject to a slew of daily issues that housed people don’t necessarily understand, from the constant threat of theft to hunger to not having access to running water, said Hayes. Banta said she sleeps in an old trailer infested with mice that don’t hesitate to bite.

“We have guests who walk past us for weeks before they decide to stop and see what this is all about,” said Hayes, a musician who’s worked for the company for three years.

Lave Mae’s showers are housed in a three-stall trailer unit, which includes sinks, toilets and small touches like plastic houseplants. The trailer hooks up to EBMUD hydrants and water is heated by propane. Access is first-come, first-served and each space is vigorously cleaned between each use by one of three on-site Lava Mae employees.

The company provides other amenities, including shampoo, combs, toothbrush kits, sunblock, sanitary items and razors. They also offer donated clothes.

“Some folks come in and have really dirty clothes, so we give them new ones,” Hayes said. “I mean, we’d rather be giving them new Levi’s and button-up shirts. I’ve seen people pull up and give a homeless person a frozen turkey. What are they going to do with that? But what works, works.”

Each guest gets a 15-minute session. And the water is hot.

Guest Brit Hadden prepares to enter Lava Mae’s mobile hygiene trailer at the corner of Second and Cedar streets. Photo: Tony Hicks

“This is unreal; it’s beautiful and it’s so simple, with running water, a towel and everything,” Sammy Ferguson said, after his 15-minute session. The winter weather sent Ferguson west five years ago from Memphis, where he worked on a Mississippi River barge for more than two decades. “I never would’ve dreamed of some of the things I’d have to do. I never dreamed I’d be homeless at 48.”

“It’s a way of staying healthy,” said Brit Hadden, while waiting for his 15-minute turn in one of the spaces. “It just feels bad to be all gritty.”

Hayes said the people with whom he interacts are misunderstood and, in some cases, mistreated.

“Our guests come from all walks of life,” Hayes said. “We have guests who have medical issues that put them on the street. Some people get hit with taxes they can’t pay. As soon as someone hits the streets, trauma ensues immediately. And, yes, people use coping mechanisms. People are treating you like you’re sub-human.”

Lava Mae has extended its services to Los Angeles and does pop-up care villages in San Francisco and Oakland. The group collaborates with other providers for expanded services like haircuts, medical and legal aid, and employment assistance services.

“Our belief is that hygiene is a basic human right,” Sandoval said, adding that more pop-up sites may come to Berkeley. “It’s just a matter of sitting down with the people from Berkeley,” she said.

The company survives on grants, private and corporate donations from companies like Kaiser and Wells Fargo. Two years ago, an anonymous Bay Area benefactor donated $1 million, which contributed to a new trailer and expanded service.

More expansion is the goal and, to that end, the company offers a free, do-it-yourself tool -kit with details on launching and running a similar service. It’s been downloaded thousands of times and has helped spawn similar organizations, like Streetside Showers in North Texas and others as far away as New York City and Zimbabwe. The company also hosts visits and does hands-on training for other groups.

“It’s building. It’s about one-on-one relationships, and guests need to see that” Sandoval said.

Lava Mae’s next goal is training people in 75 additional communities around the world by 2024 to deliver “radical hospitality” to 100,000 in need. According to its website, it has inspired, advised or trained 147 organizations around the world about mobile hygiene operations.

“We can’t meet it by ourselves, but we can share our knowledge and help communities around the world build programs modeled on ours,” said Sandoval.

As well as the services offered by Lava Mae, people living on the street can also take showers every day at the Berkeley Community Resource Center (BCRC) in the old Veteran’s Memorial building at 1931 Center St., from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. There are four showers for men, three for women, as well as washers and dryers to do laundry, according to David Stegman, the executive director of Dorothy Day, which took over operations a few months ago.

Tony Hicks is an East Bay native who spent 22 years working for Bay Area News Group, covering crime, education and the city of Berkeley. He also worked in the features department of the Contra Costa Times,...