Mobile showers for the homeless: Google's lesson in Crapulent Social Responsibility

By Dan Raile , written on July 2, 2015

From The Disruption Desk

Last week, as Yasha Levine’s article on Google’s fights with the LA homeless community was making the rounds, I found myself in the Tenderloin at 9 am, standing in front of a former MUNI bus converted into showers and bathrooms for the homeless. The bus was painted blue with eyelashes over its headlights, and it was parked in its regular Wednesday and Friday location in front of GLIDE Church. There was a long list of names on the sign-up sheet and about a dozen people waiting to clean up.

“When I found out there were only 16 showers available for the 3,500 homeless people in an affluent city like San Francisco, I found that to be a criminal lack of basic water and sanitation access -- a human right. When I had the idea, I was obsessed with mobile food and I thought, ‘Why not a bathroom?’”

So said Doniece Sandoval, the founder of Lava Mae, an organization that provides mobile sanitation services. Sandoval was speaking to me as she went about the tasks associated with moving 42 people a day through two showers fed by a fire hydrant and parked at the curb, providing each person a spacious, hand-cleaned-and-sanitized bathroom and a safe, comfortable, and dignified service.  

Lava Mae is the San Francisco non-profit which not only outfitted and operates the shower bus, but also navigated the partnership and permit process which knits them into the fabric of local homeless services and allows them to park their bus on a public road, washing the public with public water -- and donated Dr. Bronner’s soap -- running off sudsy into public sewers.

Lava Mae’s advisory committee includes the director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement (HOPE), Bevan Dufty, and Kara Zordel, the Executive Director of the city’s Project Homeless Connect, along with the directors of a handful of partner non-profits. These relationships are core to what Lava Mae does, and what it could do.

Three more buses are scheduled to come on line this year with a tweaked layout for an improved "user experience." Lava Mae has expanded rapaciously in recent months, from three to six employees. Sandoval said she is working on a revenue model that involves digital advertising on light-weight Indian smartglass.

All of this happened in large part thanks to a $100,000 grant from Google’s charitable arm, a grant which arose from the Google Impact Challenge and has just reached the end of its cycle.

“The Google grant was instrumental in us launching our pilot, and the publicity and credibility that came through them helped us raise the 20 percent of our income that was unsolicited individual donations, driven by PR and the media, and a massive leap of faith from Google,” said Leah Filler, Lava Mae’s community engagement director. Before the grant came in, Lava Mae’s funding hopes rested on an IndieGoGo campaign.

Filler and Sandoval both told me about their organization’s plan to coordinate Mobile Care Villages.

“Think 'Off the Grid' for human services,” said Filler, referencing San Francisco's food truck consortium, “bringing a spectrum of services to people where they are.”

She said they were considering submitting a proposal for the villages to this year’s Impact Challenge. The Google program selects 25 projects each year to fund. The top ten receive larger awards and the bottom 15 are allowed to reapply the next year, provided they are putting forward a different, unique project.

Google’s funding of Lava Mae’s buses is an example of Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR.

CSR and Community Engagement departments are the vector through which corporations ‘give back’ to the community.  Large companies have been engaged in CSR for years and now big tech companies are lining up to do their part.

On paper CSR can only be a good thing. But if you need an example of how it can go awry, in terms of impacts on the public good, consider the following anecdote from my dark days as a freelancer, when I found myself briefly editing copy for a major international marketing firm.

One day an item came across my desk, for which I was supposed to punch up a submission by the marketing team seeking an industry award for a campaign in a developing country. The marketers were boasting of an ingenious campaign on behalf of a major international soda brand. They found that in the rural, impoverished region that was their target market, the brand had two major challenges in gaining soda-drinkers:

  1. Soda was too expensive for people in this region.
  2. The people in question preferred to drink water.

The solution? Start a splashy CSR campaign to suggest that drinking this soda benefitted the community since a portion of sales would go to local schools over a fixed period, enlisting celebrities and local politicians in a whistlestop tour of appearances at schools.

Given the context of simmering anti-tech sentiment among residents of San Francisco, it should be no surprise that the biggest tech players in the city have taken to CSR in a big way. Many executives -- Mark Zuckerberg and Salesforce's Marc Benioff perhaps most prominently -- have made big individual gifts. Companies like Google and Zendesk have lent their names and money to solving some of the city’s most intractable problems, and others have established giving and volunteering norms for their employees. Perhaps most visibly, and its 1,100 member companies have embarked on schemes to demonstrate the tech sector’s commitment to the good of the community.

At an event in June, which was pitched as a way to bring the non-profit and tech sectors together, a representative from If(we), the host of the cocktail hour and panel presentation, indicated how these schemes can sometimes serve as more than just a feel-good PR and recruitment tool:

“With programs like [’s flagship engagement vehicle] Circle the Schools, there are some really interesting and creative things we can do. For instance we used 500 kids at Thurgood Marshall High School for a market survey, instead of sending off to some firm in New York City,” he told the crowd in his introductory speech.

This didn’t seem to raise any eyebrows among the crowd, which was overwhelmingly composed of non-profit workers -- it seems the invited “tech leaders” were less than keen to attend, especially during a Warriors playoff game.

For non-profits, these corporate ROI considerations are a necessary evil -- and a hook. This continues to hold true for the newest waves of philanthropic startups, perhaps even more so.

Consider the remarks of Mick Ebeling to a crowd at the Bay Area Maker Faire in May. Ebeling founded Not Impossible Labs and Foundation, which has developed 3D-printed, open-sourced prosthetic arms for Sudanese war-wounded, an open-sourced eye writing system for a paralyzed artist, and a vocalization solution for a man who hadn’t spoken in 15 years. These efforts were funded through donations and sponsorships with the likes of Intel and HP.

“We get big companies to pay for it so we can give it away for free. Because the maker movement has become more mainstream, big companies want to be seen getting involved. And nobody wants to get caught not helping.”

* * * *

A veteran public relations and non-profit development professional, Sandoval is no stranger to the marketing motives at play for big corporations with CSR programs. But she said she’s a “die hard optimist.”

“Corporate expansion and gentrification is a puzzle that no city anywhere has solved. The question of how you grow without creating a homogenous community of wealthy people. I think Google is trying to find a way they can help. Some companies do nothing. And it helps that there is this millennial fervor to work for companies that make a difference.”

When I asked what she’d thought of Yasha’s article, Filler said she found it a “very interesting read, for sure.”

“We believe, and I believe, that any policies that criminalize the homeless are missing the root of the issue. If companies, government, and community organizations can work together to meet basic needs and provide supportive services, the whole community benefits.”

Lava Mae is a great example of those sorts of collaboration, and of the creative solutions flowing from them. If things go according to plan, they’ll hit a rate of 50,000 showers per year by the end of this year. Of course, that depends on this next cycle of funding.

As tech companies have grown to become corporations of massive scale and social impact, they’ve adopted many of the business practices of the traditional corporate behemoths they vie to supplant. At Pando, we’ve covered such issues as the offshoring of profits for tax purposes, and the entrainment of lobbying networks to influence political decisions as these practices have emerged.

But if corporate spend is recognized as speech, then CSR is too often the domain of lip-service and the rhetoric of misdirection.

Google may or may not renew its assistance-by-proxy to the San Francisco homeless, who have the decency to keep their suffering away from the GooglePlex. But, as we’ve seen in LA, Corporate Social Responsibility at Google quickly ends when a homeless person dares to set up camp in Google’s backyard.