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Plan would turn buses into mobile showers

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    Kevin Culling, 24, brushes his teeth inside an old San Francisco “Muni” bus that was converted into a mobile shower and toilet for the city’s homeless population.


    San Francisco’s “Lava Mae” buses are touted as helping keep sidewalks free of human waste and needles as well as helping the homeless maintain hygiene. The proposed shower buses for Oahu could be similar to these.

Three architects and a money manager are trying to breathe new life into decommissioned city buses by turning them into mobile public showers to give homeless people across Oahu a place to clean up and wash their clothes.

Working pro bono, the group hopes to have the first of five buses back on the road and providing free showers and laundry service by the end of the year.

“We have five decommissioned buses that have lived their full life,” said Jun Yang, executive director of the city’s Office of Housing, “but they’re still in decent running order.”

The idea to recycle them into mobile showers for the homeless is based on a successful nonprofit program in San Francisco that parks two refurbished “Muni” buses each morning in the Tenderloin District and next to the city’s main library.

As in San Francisco, the buses would not directly reduce Honolulu’s homeless population, which represents the highest per-capita rate in the country.

But during a tour of San Francisco’s so-called “Lava Mae” shower buses last year, city officials, library staff, the homeless and tourists lauded the program to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

They said it gives homeless people a place to take showers while keeping sidewalks free of human feces, urine and needles.

Each Lava Mae bus is split into front and back halves. They’re fitted with pairs of identical showers, toilets and sinks that are fed by city fire hydrants. Towels and toiletries are donated, and each day’s lineup of people waiting for a shower is managed by workers, many of whom were homeless themselves.

Honolulu’s version would be slightly different.

Each 40-foot bus would house four showers and toilets, plus a washing machine, clothes dryer and mailboxes to allow homeless people to receive correspondence, said Eliot Bu, who works on “family wealth and endowments” for his day job at Morgan Stanley.

Enough people and organizations are offering to donate materials and labor that renovation costs should not be a problem, Bu said.

The key now is to identify — or create — a nonprofit group that could run the first bus and generate enough funding to keep the program going.

Bu and architects Reid Mizue, owner of Omizu architecture; Ryan Sullivan, an architect at Group 70 International; and Group 70 partner Ma Ry Kim have been talking with Honolulu nonprofit groups about how the first refurbished bus could fit with existing homeless outreach efforts.

“If we have one bus, we’ll select five to seven (nonprofits) and go park behind one of their outreach programs per day,” Bu said. “Each of the programs has a very specific location and needs to be accountable so people trust them. It takes years to build that kind of credibility. We’ve talked to eight organizations, and their No. 1 worry is it fizzles out and they’re left with running something and they have all of the liability.”

Based on the experience of the first bus, four subsequent buses pledged by the city could be designed for a wide range of uses, Bu said. For example, a bus could be designed with sleeping space for a family to use as transitional housing. Or a bus could be converted for medical treatment, such as dental care.

About 18 months ago Kim spoke with Yang about her frustration with Honolulu’s homeless situation.

“I was frustrated because I couldn’t see things materializing,” Kim remembered. “As architects we want to see things built. He said, ‘We’ve got all these decommissioned buses sitting in the depot.’ And that was the beginning of the project.”

In October one of Bu’s local clients who has a foundation told him, “‘I see all these homeless people. Can you help?’ I said, ‘Let me think about it.’”

Bu said he became interested in the concept of mobile showers “to give the homeless some dignity,” adding, “I told my clients about this idea in December, and they got very excited and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Bu then found Kim and her pro bono work online, and they’ve been a hui ever since.

City officials appreciate their efforts because “there is no budget for this,” Yang said.

Leah Filler, Lava Mae’s director of global community engagement, told the Star-Advertiser that it would cost about $250,000 to $300,000 — plus parts, fuel, servicing and municipal water — to run a pilot program for a single bus.

Lava Mae and Honolulu officials have been talking for nearly a year, and “we’ve received hundreds and hundreds and hundreds more inquiries from across the globe,” Filler said.

Lava Mae this month launched a slightly different concept that involves towing three showers into the busy downtown Civic Center area each day.

The trailers allow the use of an additional shower while reducing the amount of space that a city bus would otherwise take up in busy San Francisco.

And Lava Mae officials are still willing to work with people in Honolulu who want to establish the city as the first after San Francisco to put a shower-bus on the road.

“Honolulu is still in it for the win,” Filler said. “They got in early enough and they’ve still got us.”

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    • Yep. I suppose the rationale these days is to REWARD the antisocial, irresponsible behavior instead of discouraging it. And yet bleeding hearts babble on about making homes AFFORDABLE or giving hassle to vacation rentals because it TAKES AWAY from the homeless when we ALL know that even with a good supply of affordable homes etc. there will STILL be a critical mass of homeless that will not do what it takes to fit back into “normal” society, regardless. And these are not even the truly problem cases of mental illness types. Just look at that picture of the healthy, strapping guy brushing his teeth above. Think he moved to San Fran with a plan? Probably, as I’ve seen there, one of those that moved there from Toledo and thought the 60s Hippy movement was STILL going on and wanted to get a little free love and score some pakas to toke on.

      • Yeah, we should be concentrating on rewarding PRP, the already rich Architects, Engineers, and developers and find a way to get more taxpayer moneys for rail. But wait, this is a private solution so why are people complaining about it?

        • Corporate welfare and enabling corporations to hide their wealth overseas to avoid taxes is bad enough. But in the case of this homeless problem locally, where does it end? Continually house and feed and HOPE they get a job to better themselves/their FAMILY or does that further dis-incentivize them from responsibility (especially the habitual breeders)?? Should we have the word spread so more and more arrive from all corners of the world to live the life in (ha!) “paradise”?

  • This by far tops as one of the most ridiculous ideas I’ve heard yet. Here, the bums already have free showers at most beaches. They can also take a dip in our warm ocean even if rinse down showers at the beach were not available for any reason. Please don’t do this as it will encourage more freeloaders like that 24 year old healthy looking freeloading bum pictured in this article, keep coming to the islands and make their free stay more comfortable.

  • It would be more prudent and more modern to simply convert the UNUSED RAIL CARS that were recently delivered. Oh! I forgot, they’re currently being used for Friday Night Poker..!

  • The German government used to have “mobile showers” back in the 40s that seemed to eradicate a lot of homeless problems. I wonder if this approach will be Honolulu’s final solution?

  • Providing these showers demonstrates an attitude of, “we give up and accept all that will come,” versus, “we’re trying to get these people off of our streets and make Hawaii a better place.”

    • Nope. It allows them to keep their low-paying jobs. We really need to raise the minimum wage to $12. Clinton’s agenda. In Hawaii, they’ll still be living in poverty but will live in affordable rentals.

        • comment awaiting moderation? for what? Original comment said “Yep and where is the electricity for the washer/dryers coming from – and who pays? (Stup-id) idea like the rail with no power source”. Guess the moderators don’t like the word in parenthesis.

  • Whatever happened to the bright idea one Hawaii non-profit had a few years ago to convert old tour buses into sleepers by replacing seats with stacked bunks? The plan was to drive the sleeper buses from wherever they were kept to Waikiki, downtown and other areas where the homeless gathered each night, and they would return to the non-profits sleeper bus park in the morning when the homeless exited the sleepers at a prescribed time. The plan did not succeed, perhaps because the homeless feared that when loaded with homeless, the sleeper buses would be driven off to the middle-of-nowhere on Oahu and left there with them still on them.

  • Sounds fine as long as private industry funds it entirely. Including NOT giving away old busses that still have considerable value to them. Please stop stealing from taxpayers.

  • The most disgusting thing about this plan is the negative reactions from SA readers. Remember that many of the homeless are families with adults that are working, just not making enough to pay for their own housing. Giving the adults and their kids somewhere to clean up and prepare for school or work can only have positive effects in helping them to advance their lives. Have some compassion people…get down off your high horses. Many of you are only a paycheck or two away from the same fate, especially if you lost your job or are injured and cannot work.
    “There but for the grace of God go I.”

    • Eh toob, “many” of the homeless are cronics, not “families with adults””and their kids”. My job puts me on the road throughout this island daily, and all I see is the same crackheads who seem fully capable physically to go out and WORK, but REFUSE to. I DO see children, little children at that, on the streets and it saddens me, but when you their lazy, do nothing parents parents congregating under a tree with the rest of the cronics, you wonder where is CPS when you need them. THAT is what you should find “disgusting”.

        • This approach to helping the homeless is better than providing them with a free place to live. If they build a tent city, it’ll become permanent. It likely will also encourage many to remain homeless when they otherwise would eventually work their way out of homelessness.

        • We, the taxpayers, are tired of footing the bill for people who have NO desire to better their situation by getting off the crack, getting some education or job training, working and doing what it takes to get them and their family off the street. Is that asking too much?

    • Hello, that’s what shelters are for. Those with kids who don’t go to the shelters should be arrested for child abuse. This is where generations of family members on assistance comes from.

  • This is another stu*pid idea. If we keep bringing things to the homeless (at parks, along the streets and sidewalks), they will never go to the shelters. We really need to get the homeless off the streets and parks.

    • Better than that, we need to ship them to San Francisco where they already have free mobile showers. See, the homeless really are better off back on the mainland!

      Also for the cost of one of these buses ($300k according to the article) I’d rather they spend those funds to ship or fly each bum on a one way trip to the mainland.

  • Wow..mmm..score card reads. Homeless-Free lodging live next to the beach, free-food, free-medical, free-phones, free-court room appearance where the courts come to you, and now free-showers and laundry. not to mention free money from the government!!!!


  • Yeah! Put the Priest and Churches in jail too for helping the homeless. They ain’t using taxpayers’ moneys but they are encouraging them. So what if some of them are war veterans traumatized by war, so what if some of them have lost their jobs because the plantations have shut down, so what if they can’t find jobs anymore because they are old. It should be a crime to be homeless and to help homeless. If we just work hard enough all of us should be living in one of those new $20 million dollar condos coming up, it ain’t that hard.

    • They’re only looking out to ensure these bums don’t die so you can’t be too harsh on them but it would be wiser to persuade the religious leaders to keep influencing the bums to go to the mainland where free showers are already available in bum friendly cities like San Francisco and plentiful free food is far more abundant than on the islands. If they need financial help getting to the mainland, I think the govt still has the one way trip to the mainland program available?

  • I would like to pitch my own non-profit idea. I would love to collect donations from anyone to help ship all the buns off the islands to San Francisco where free mobile showers are already available. San Francisco is a sanctuary city so the homeless will be accepted with open arms. Please, if anyone would like to donate funds and/or be in charge of a cargo ship that could allow the transporting of the homeless to the mainland please reply. Apparently, our government officials can’t do anything right so we need to do this on our own and then the government can’t tax us in the future for Igloos, shower buses and multi-million dollar shelters that have over 600 empty beds on a nightly basis. I’m willing to even help the homeless gather and pack their junk onto the container ship.

  • is there some give and take for the homeless to use this ?? how short term is this …and what can/did happen in san franscisco ? what happened 1 year over there later ? aloha

    • It’s a win-win. We have the old buses to recycle, and the homeless will become invisible and not harm our economy.

      Let’s try one bus and see how it works ot. We already have the mechanics to make the changes.

      • Where are those mechanics you speak of? Working for the government? Like the good dem you are, you are already spending taxpayer money on this “private” enterprise.

        Wasting money is such a common thing for you guys that you don’t even realize when you’re doing it.

    • That’s where the first shower bus should be located.

      Everyone knows the homeless in East Honolulu should be more presentable than other areas of the island. It should be a law that residents give their old Reyn Spooner aloha shirts to the homeless in that area so that they are able to give off an air of class and high sophistication, such as that side of the island demands.(Puka t shirts and slippas are fine for anything ewa of Diamond Head. Pants are optional the further west you go)./

      (/= the international shorthand symbol for “Sarcasm”)

  • How about those panhandlers at intersections begging for handouts….These “AKU BIRDS” I heard they make about $70,000 a year….no pity for them

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