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.”