Tim Lemieux struggled to find a place to shower in Oakland during the pandemic, until he came across LavaMaeX's mobile trailer in Temescal. Credit: Amir Aziz

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It was a chilly, overcast Tuesday morning in Temescal—the kind that makes you crave a hot shower to warm and wake you up.

Tim Lemieux took his time in the shower that morning, in part because it’s likely the only one he’ll get this week. Lemieux is currently unhoused and sleeping outside in North Oakland. While he awaits word from housing leads, it’s been challenging to access basic services. 

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

A couple months ago, Lemieux came across the bright blue LavaMaeX trailer on Shattuck Avenue and 46th Street, parked behind the old Kasper’s Hot Dogs site. The mobile trailer equipped with free, private showers sits at this location every Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., available to anyone who drops by.

Where to get a free, drop-in shower in Oakland 

  • LavaMaeX offers showers Tuesdays, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., at 4501 Shattuck Ave.
  • St. Vincent de Paul offers showers Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., with a break from 12-12:30p.m., at 2272 San Pablo Ave. Guests must complete an intake first.
  • The city of Oakland and partner organizations run a mobile shower program, offering services at sites throughout the city daily. See the full schedule. Showers are open to residents at the facilities, as well as the general public.

Let us know if we’re missing a site: natalie@oaklandside.org.

The nonprofit launched in San Francisco about seven years ago and has provided mobile showers on and off since then in Oakland, Berkeley, and Los Angeles. The Temescal iteration, currently the only shower service running in the East Bay, is a couple months old. 

This Tuesday, customers came in a slow trickle—just two people stopped by to use the three shower stalls over a one-hour span. Each is allotted up to 15 minutes in a booth, which has a shower (with shampoo, conditioner, and a towel provided), toilet, sink, and hooks to hang clothes. 

“I would expect more people to come,” said Lemieux, who warned that he might get “sappy” talking about what the opportunity to shower means to him. Lemieux acquired a concerning sore on his lip some months back, which was exacerbated by the “dust, dirt, and oil” he’s exposed to living on the streets, but some medical attention and the sanitation services helped him keep it in check.

“Being clean does something to your psyche just as much as being dirty does,” said Sam Reardon, LavaMaeX’s Bay Area services manager. “Maybe you’re able to go into the library again because you don’t stink, or go to an interview. It opens opportunities, whether emotionally or physically. That uplift in your mood can motivate you.” 

The nonprofit’s staff practices what they call “radical hospitality,” treating everyone like they “deserve a shower,” introducing themselves and asking the customer’s name, in hopes of building a lasting relationship, but respecting their privacy otherwise. 

“It’s a welcoming, clean environment, and I encourage people to just sit around and hang out,” said Reardon. In the COVID era, each stall gets a thorough hose-down with hospital-grade disinfectant between guests. 

After starting off in San Francisco in 2013, LavaMaeX—whose name is a reference to the Spanish phrase “lávame,” or “wash me”—expanded to Los Angeles. “After a few more years, we saw a high need in Oakland,” said Reardon. In 2018, thanks to initial funding from Kaiser, the organization, then called Lava Mae, began providing showers at seven different locations throughout Oakland every week, ranging from a transitional housing site in West Oakland to the Roots Community Health Center in deep East Oakland.

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

When the pandemic hit, the organization had to make a bleak call. On the one hand, it had never been more critical to help people stay sanitized. On the other, staff feared that continuing to cycle people through the small shower stalls could spread the new deadly virus among one of the most vulnerable populations. They decided to close all the sites.

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

Putting the shower program on pause, LavaMae expanded its work coaching other groups and local governments interested in launching their own mobile hygiene services. Fundraising for these types of programs is typically one of the toughest barriers for the organizations the non-profit advises, said Reardon. 

Since that initial grant from Kaiser, LavaMaeX has funded its Oakland services through private donations, receiving no money from the city. However, it currently operates under a city Flex Streets permit, a COVID-19 program authorizing businesses to set up shop in Oakland streets, temporarily. The trailer hooks up to a fire hydrant to access water.

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

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

Once it began feeling safer to relaunch the showers in the Bay Area, “it took quite a few months to get back off the ground,” said Reardon, but LavaMaeX soon connected with the Temescal Telegraph Business Improvement District and Village of Love, a nonprofit that supports Oakland’s unhoused residents and runs a shelter in Alameda. The organizations helped secure the operating permit for LavaMaeX, which started the current service in late April. Village of Love offers free, donated clothing, 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, the Temescal BID’s operations manager, who’s also the executive director of Village of Love. He created a de-escalation training for business owners in Temescal, who can call on the BID’s “ambassadors,” instead of the police, to help mediate conflicts that can arise between the businesses and unhoused neighbors. That program has helped build trust among local, homeless residents, Harrison said, which makes them more likely to come out for a hot shower and a new pair of shoes on Tuesdays.

“It’s easier if you know someone’s name. We have a lot of the same faces that show up looking for us,” said Harrison, when he stopped by the shower site this week.

The BID also invites housing and substance treatment programs and others to offer their services alongside the showers each week. This Tuesday it was a vaccine clinic, run by Curative

Many unhoused people still haven’t gotten vaccinated because of real or perceived barriers with health insurance or transportation, said Erika Ramirez, who was working at the Curative site. Some people who stop by for a shot say they hesitated at first, concerned they’d get sick from the vaccine and not be able to afford pain medication or a doctor’s visit after, she said. 

But setting up next to free, steamy showers helps. 

“Instead of having to come to us, we go to them,” Ramirez said. “The easiest way is to go to where they already get services.”

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.