Wonder Why There Were Toilets on Market Street Yesterday?

Earlier this month, I wrote a story for The Bold Italic called "Why Is There So Much Human Shit on the Streets."Through researching for the piece, I discovered the problem is a lot more serious and systemic than just some turds on the sidewalk. It's about people. Because of my piece, a local non-profit group, Lava Mae, contacted me.

If Lava Mae sounds familiar, you  might remember that the group had a Indieagogo campaign earlier this fall. Using these funds raised, in May of 2014, Lava Mae (Spanish for “wash me”) will launch the first of hopefully many MUNI buses retrofitted to feature toilets and showers. The purpose being to provide a mobile means to bring some modicum of dignity, cleanliness, and a place to let nature call for the startling number of homeless people in San Francisco.

Although May still floats listlessly on the horizon, Lava Mae founder Doniece Sandoval isn’t shy about getting the word out now about the forthcoming mobile bathrooms, as well as the serious issues SF and other communities worldwide face with the lack of public restrooms.

Yesterday, November 21, Lava Mae sponsored public awareness campaign, “C’mon Give A Sh_t!”  The group installed five art-toilets, made in collaboration with three artists and three designers, on Market at 10th Streets. “We wanted to give these artists the chance to pimp out these toilets with no parameters,” Sandoval said over the phone, “let them do what they wanted and then take the products and put them in an area with massive gentrification, and population of people confused by the homeless, and hope that it starts some brand new conversations around the subject.”

Each of the toilets stands as its own distinct artistic statement, from Lava Mae architect Brett Terpeluk’s “Reading Material," a commode entirely covered with the torn out pages of various books, to Travis Sommerville’s musical self-portrait of George Jennings, the sanitary engineer who invented the first public toilet. The project, in collaboration with Tuesday’s World Toilet Day, seeks to draw attention to the 2.5 billion people worldwide without access to basic human amenities like clean, private toilets.  “It’s a complicated issue,” Sandoval says, “and we hope that something like this sparks creativity and inspiration towards using something that already exists to do something great.”

But Sandoval and Lava Mae have far higher aspirations than cool art-toilets. “We want to deliver dignity. We feel that if you don’t have access to hygiene you lose touch with your humanity.” And although, as Sandoval says, “it isn’t going to end homelessness,” a fleet of toilet and shower buses marching through the city has the potential to both meet a few basic human needs and create a blueprint for how other communities can go about doing something similar. “We’re creating a model for delivery of service that others can embrace, a forum that works like open source technology,” Sandoval says, “Our designs, our budgets, anything we can help bring to other communities.” 

Bringing some level of awareness to San Francisco is of course, the first goal, “I think in a city where you have real-estate prices sky-rocketing at impossible rates it’s hard to think about brick-and-mortar facilities. It’s an opportunity to sit and figure out what we can do to solve a basic need for the entire city.”

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Published on November 22, 2013, 2013

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