Homeless people in Oakland can start the day with a free hot shower in Temescal


It was a cool, overcast Tuesday morning in Temescal, the kind that made you want a hot shower to warm you up and wake you up.

Tim Lemieux took his time in the shower that morning, in part because it’s probably the only one he will have this week. Lemieux is currently homeless and sleeps outside in North Oakland. While awaiting news from housing officials, it was difficult to access basic services.

“One of the worst things here is figuring out how to take care of yourself and stay clean,” Lemieux said. He used to pay a hefty price to use the showers and sauna at the Berkeley Hot Tubs, a business that shut down permanently during the pandemic. Other places Lemieux had relied on for washroom access also stopped letting customers in for fear of spreading COVID-19.

A few months ago, Lemieux came across the bright blue LavaMaeX trailer on Shattuck Avenue and 46th Street, parked behind Kasper’s old hot dog site. The mobile trailer equipped with free private showers is located here every Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., accessible to all passers-by.

  • LavaMaeX offers showers on Tuesdays, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., at 4501 Shattuck Ave.
  • Saint-Vincent-de-Paul offers showers from Tuesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., with a break from 12 p.m. to 12:30 p.m., at 2272, avenue San Pablo. Clients must first complete an admission.
  • The City of Oakland and partner organizations operate a portable shower program, providing daily services at sites across the city. See the full program. The showers are open to residents of the establishments, as well as to the general public.

Let us know if we are missing a site: [email protected].

The non-profit organization was started in San Francisco about seven years ago and has since provided portable showers in Oakland, Berkeley and Los Angeles. The Temescal iteration, currently the only shower service running in the East Bay, is a few months old.

This Tuesday, customers arrived slowly – only two people stopped to use the three shower stalls for an hour. Each is allocated up to 15 minutes in a cabin, which has a shower (with shampoo, conditioner, and towel provided), toilet, sink, and hooks for hanging clothes.

“I would expect more people to come,” said Lemieux, who warned he could get “sappy” when talking about what the ability to take a shower means to him. Lemieux had a worrying sore on his lip a few months ago, which was exacerbated by the “dust, dirt and oil” he is exposed to on the streets, but medical attention and sanitation services helped him control it.

“Being clean does something for your psyche just as much as being dirty,” said Sam Reardon, LavaMaeX Bay Area Services Manager. “Maybe you can go back to the library because you don’t stink, or go for an interview. It opens up opportunities, whether emotionally or physically. This improvement in your mood can motivate you.

Association staff practice what they call ‘radical hospitality’, treating everyone as if they ‘deserve a shower’, introducing themselves and asking for the client’s name, in hopes of building a relationship. durable, but respecting their privacy otherwise.

“It’s a welcoming and clean environment, and I encourage people to just sit and hang out,” Reardon said. In the era of COVID, every booth is thoroughly sprayed with a hospital-grade disinfectant between guests.

After starting in San Francisco in 2013, LavaMaeX, whose name refers to the Spanish expression “lávame” or “wash me”, has expanded to Los Angeles. “After a few more years, we saw a high need in Oakland,” Reardon said. In 2018, with seed funding from Kaiser, the organization, then called Lava Mae, began providing showers at seven different locations in Oakland each week, ranging from a transitional housing site in West Oakland to Roots Community Health. Center in the depths of East Oakland.

A LavaMaeX employee notes the name of a shower user and the time they entered the facility. Credit: Amir Aziz

When the pandemic struck, the organization had to make a grim appeal. On the one hand, helping people stay sanitized has never been so essential. On the other hand, staff feared that continuing to cycle people through small shower stalls would spread the deadly new virus among one of the most vulnerable populations. They have decided to close all the sites.

“We just didn’t feel safe providing this essential service to people,” Reardon said.

By putting the shower program on hiatus, LavaMae extended its work by mentoring other groups and local governments interested in starting their own mobile hygiene services. Raising money for these types of programs is usually one of the toughest hurdles for organizations that the nonprofit advises, Reardon said.

Since that initial grant from Kaiser, LavaMaeX has funded its services in Oakland through private donations, without receiving any money from the city. However, it is currently operating under a permit from the City Flex Streets, a COVID-19 program allowing businesses to temporarily relocate to the streets of Oakland. The trailer hooks up to a fire hydrant to access the water.

LavaMaeX also provides free instruction manuals and material lists for “DIY hand washing stations,” which can be built from hardware products and are designed to be installed in camps and similar sites. The city of Oakland has also increased the number of handwashing stations it provides to homeless camps at the start of the pandemic. LavaMaeX has also distributed thousands of COVID-19 hygiene kits to camps in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

LavaMaeX showers come with shampoo and conditioner, plus space to change into cool clothes. Credit: Amir Aziz

Once he started to feel more secure relaunching showers in the Bay Area, “it took several months to take off,” Reardon said, but LavaMaeX quickly connected with the Temescal Telegraph Business Improvement. District and Village of Love, a non-profit organization that supports homeless residents of Oakland and operates a shelter in Alameda. The organizations helped secure the license to operate LavaMaeX, which started the current service at the end of April. Village of Love offers free clothes, shoes and snacks from a table next to the shower trailer.

“At these types of events, we like to get the community to volunteer,” said Joey Harrison, COO of Temescal BID, who is also the Executive Director of Village of Love. He created de-escalation training for business owners in Temescal, who can call on IDB ‘ambassadors’ instead of the police, to help mediate conflicts that may arise between businesses and neighbors without housing. This program has helped build confidence among local homeless residents, Harrison said, making them more likely to step out for a hot shower and a new pair of shoes on Tuesday.

“It’s easier if you know someone’s name. We have a lot of the same faces that come our way, ”said Harrison, when he stopped by the showers site this week.

The IDB also invites housing and drug treatment programs and others to offer their services alongside showers every week. This Tuesday, it was a vaccination clinic, run by Curative.

Many homeless people still have not been vaccinated due to real or perceived barriers with health insurance or transportation, said Erika Ramirez, who worked at the Curative site. Some people who stop to get the vaccine say they were hesitant at first, worried about getting sick from the vaccine and not being able to afford pain relievers or a doctor’s visit afterwards, she said. .

But setting up next to free steamy showers helps.

“Instead of having to come to our house, we go to them,” Ramirez said. “The easiest way is to go where they’re already getting service.”

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