Women CEOs Lead the Charge With S.F.’s Homeless

Three homelessness nonprofits with women in charge make local and national headlines.

CEO of Simply the Basics, Megan Freebeck. (Courtesy of Simply the Basics)

City Hall is currently on its umpteenth iteration of trying to solve the chronic San Francisco homeless problem. We now have a Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing — preceded by the infamous Super Bowl tent sweeps, the criminalization of people sitting on sidewalks, and decades’ worth of other initiatives.

But while employees at City Hall have bickered over departments and programs, a few nonprofits founded or run by women have been making national news and getting results for the San Francisco street population in ways we’ve never seen before.

The biggest new development is with one of the best-known homeless service nonprofits in town. Project Homeless Connect has a new CEO, as current chief Kara Zordel is soon stepping down for health reasons. At the age of 30, new acting CEO Meghan Freebeck also runs Simply the Basics, an organization that hands out free hygiene products like toothbrushes, deodorant, and tampons. She plans to lead both organizations and align them together.

“Project Homeless Connect and Simply the Basics have similar missions,” Freebeck tells SF Weekly. Together, they wrangle and distribute $30,000 a month worth of hygiene products to the Bay Area homeless.

San Franciscans on the street now have unprecedented access to free razors, baby wipes, and other hygiene products. No unhoused resident has to walk more than a half-mile to get these items, thanks to the nonprofit’s hygiene bank program, which works just like a food bank. Freebeck also manages to run this program without any tax dollars.

“Simply the Basics is volunteer run and privately funded,” she tells SF Weekly. “Every donation goes directly to programs that focus on improving health and dignity.”

The goods get given out more effectively now that Project Homeless Connect has a sweet new cargo van. “PHC has launched a mobile CareVan, which will reach even more neighborhoods,” she says. “This will allow us to ensure that no one has to go far to receive services and have their basic needs met.”

Another female-founded San Francisco nonprofit serving the homeless is enjoying national coverage — in more ways than one. After a June CNN profile on Lava Mae founder Doniece Sandoval sparked nationwide support and donations, the “showers on wheels” service has launched a plan to take the program nationwide.

You may have seen Lava Mae’s big blue shower buses around San Francisco. The organization converts old public transportation vehicles into traveling shower stations, delivering dignity and hot showers to those without bathroom access, six days a week.

“Our mission is taking radical hospitality to the streets,” Lava Mae spokesperson Deborah Schneider tells SF Weekly. “When we say ‘radical hospitality,’ what we mean is delivering an unexpected level of care to people who are not normally given a high level of concern.”

Lava Mae just celebrated the three-year anniversary of its mobile showers, and its 30,000th free shower. Born from Doniece Sandoval’s simple crowdfunding campaign, the portable shower service scored a $100,000 grant from Google in 2014, and in partnership with other service providers delivers haircuts, new clothes, medical care, and dental care to its guests via monthly pop-up care villages at the San Francisco Public Library Main Branch.

Lava Mae expanded to Los Angeles in 2016, but its latest innovation truly takes it nationwide. In July, the nonprofit launched a replication toolkit of advice and templates for other cities that strive to duplicate Lava Mae. “We put out a downloadable, comprehensive toolkit for how to approach replicating our mobile-hygiene service,” Schneider says. “If 13 people from Chicago email us, we want to make sure those people are all connected together.”

Without tax funding, these trailblazing nonprofits need donations to continue to touch people’s lives every day. In addition to money, they could use volunteers and in-kind donations of toiletries — even stolen hotel soap bars and shampoo bottles — with new pairs of socks being uniquely prized among the clientele. But there’s something even easier you can do to help.

“The best thing you can do is just acknowledge someone’s presence and their humanity,” Schneider says. “You can start by just making eye contact. You can smile. Just honoring somebody’s humanity and a kind smile really makes a big difference.”

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