• Lava Mae's Shower Bus parked on a busy San Francisco street. (NITV)Source: NITV
Take a look inside the revolutionary bus driving people out of homelessness and restoring hygiene on the streets.
Tara Callinan

21 Jun 2016 - 10:34 AM  UPDATED 21 Jun 2016 - 10:43 AM

Its 8:30am. It’s ten degrees but feels like 5. You’ve just woken from a night sleeping on the streets. You’re wearing the same clothes as last week. There are no bathrooms or shelters in sight. You’re starving, you’re dirty and you’re tired…But this is just another day for you.

In fact, this is every day for more than 105,000 homeless Australians; 25 per cent of whom identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. In Sydney alone, there are close to 500 people sleeping on the streets.

And in the city of San Francisco, there are a staggering 6000.

“These people are treated like children or garbage. They are barked at and they are given numbers not names,” said Leah Filler.

Ms Filler is one many volunteers worldwide trying to eradicate poverty and restore dignity.

In San Francisco, she is doing this with a bright, blue bus.

Also known as the ‘bathroom on wheels,’ Lava Mae is a retired bus - revamped in 2015 to service the needs of the city’s homeless.

“Lava Mae is taking radical hospitality to the streets. We believe that one of the first indicators of homelessness is hygiene; the way you smell and the way you look.”

“That’s going to affect the way people treat you and the way that you treat yourself,” said Ms Filler who is the Director of Impact and New Programs at Lava Mae.

From 8am to 2:30pm each day of the week, Leah travels with the bus to 7 different locations across San Francisco.

“We can serve anywhere from 30 to 50 different people on any given day, and so far we’ve provided showers to more than 2,300 individuals,” she said.

“But the people we serve do suffer from mental illness, substance abuse and disabilities so this can slow things down a bit.”

In Australia, there are similar health problems among the homeless population.

According to a recent Homelessness NSW Report, 77 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living on the streets are engaging in substance abuse, and 61 percent of these people reported having a brain injury.

As a result, many become reliant on the State Government for financial assistance through the Disability Support Pension.

But according to Ms Filler, this shouldn’t be their only choice.

She says a service like Lave Mae makes entering the workforce a realistic option for homeless people.

Her service is driven by the belief that ‘with hygiene comes dignity, and that with dignity comes opportunity.’

Ms Filler says something as simple as a shower has the ability to remove barriers relating to employment, access to housing and other pathways to advancement.

“This is a basic human right we are talking about. It is the responsibility of our governments to provide this basic necessity to its people… And when they won’t, people like us will.”

Leah is encouraging Australia to adopt the Lava Mae model and eradicate poverty, one shower at a time.

Her bus - which consists of two shower pods, basins and toilets - is the first of its kind to launch in America through crowd funding and donations.

“It’s about humanity, it’s about innovation and it’s about collaboration. These are the three pillars that any community across the globe can adopt,” said Ms Filler.

Lava Mae is providing an advanced level of care to people living on the streets, who are often ostracised and ignored for surviving a period of misfortune or bad luck.

For more information on Lava Mae, visit: http://lavamae.org/


Tara Callinan is a Wiradjuri journalist, presenter and blogger living in San Francisco.