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LavaMae: Impact in the Land of Broken Dreams

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Before I was born, my father had been travelling all around the world as part of the Air Force, and he had decided after flying over the sunny skies of California that it was the best place to raise a family. However, I've always had a love-and-hate relationship with California. I longed for snow and rainy days, I loved the the change in seasons; I loved how people who grew up under colder seasons tended to be more consistent and reliable, as opposed to the flighty nonsense of people who grow up under incessant sunshine. Growing up in the Bay Area, I remember spending all my time at Caffé Strada, hanging out with UC Berkeley students as a high school student and going to book readings with my favorite authors at Black Oak Books in Berkeley/Oakland (now closed), raves and festivals on the weekend, and hanging out with filmmakers in the Castro and the Mission; and it was a shock to me, when I moved away for university and learned that not everyone was so accepting of liberal values.

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In San Francisco, gay couples holding hands is nothing out of the ordinary and openly accepted. 

I was visiting another city at the town centre when there was a rather handsome gay couple walking down the street hand-in-hand; something that was normal in San Francisco, but apparently not in this particular city; and suddenly, someone on the other side of the street yelled out an expletive, not once but twice. I was shocked someone could do such a thing in open daylight, and I could sense that other people felt the same; but still no one did nor say anything, and the gay couple walked faster, trying to get out of the area. It was one of those moments where I felt someone should've said something but no one did. I wanted to say to the man who shouted those obscenities: "Hey you, what's wrong in your life that you have to hate on other people in love? People can love whomever they want!" But the moment passed, and we were all on our way, and I thought to myself that this is something that would've never happened in San Francisco. Everyone was so open in San Francisco. No one, even tourists, questioned the public affection of gay couples. It was perfectly natural. However, it was the first time I realised why gay couples chose to stay in the closet in other cities within the United States.

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Vandals flipping smartcars in San Francisco, a widespread phenomenon.

However, there is also a dark side to San Francisco as well. The criminal gangs, the homelessness, the growing, unchecked elitism of many communities were pervasively destroying what San Francisco and Silicon Valley used to be. Although San Francisco has always been a melting pot of immigrants, much of the sense of community has been eroded by a sense of elitism; of reverence towards people with Stanford and MIT engineering degrees to assert their wealth and privilege. "Glassholes" became a common way of describing Googlers who walked around wearing Google Glass with their sense of entitlement. How dare anyone study anything outside of engineering and how stupid was it for anyone to be different? became part of the commonly heard dialogue. San Francisco and Silicon Valley's philosophy changed from innovation to ultimately becoming about uniformity, and perhaps even propagating greed and the advent of paper billionaires. San Francisco wasn't what it used to be, when I was hanging out with videobloggers and future YouTube stars changing the landscape of journalism in 2005, nor when we were just hanging out at local pubs and restaurants where a lot of the initial dialogues about the beginning of iconic new companies began. Something permeated the landscape after 2005, and San Francisco was no longer that place where innovation happened; much of the dialogue became more about fame and money, jumping from one job to another that offered the most benefits and stock options, and people no longer cared about creating long term value- rather it became more about following the ranks of popular people in the media, the necessity to become a billionaire before the age of 30.

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Homeless people who had set up tents near the 101 Freeway near Division Street in San Francisco were forced to evacuate this area earlier in February of this year. Many homeless people have lost their homes due to the rising cost of housing in San Francisco.

As progressive as the San Francisco/ Bay Area/ Silicon Valley was in terms of liberal views, the pervasive attitude of "entitlement" overshadowed its previous successors: the pioneers who made San Francisco the left capital of the U.S.; instead it became a place where people who thought that poor and depressed people deserved to be poor and depressed because they didn't work hard enough to overcome their circumstances. San Francisco was no longer the centre nor place of innovation, where people supported each other in the development of ideas. The mentality of SF became that the weak and underprivileged should die; no one supported the underdog with disruptive ideas anymore. People who didn't support the same politics should have their car vandalised. People who were depressed should commit suicide and jump off buildings. It's "might-makes-right", it's a "dog-eat-dog" world. People who were disadvantaged- whether in psychology or economics should be left to suffer. Recently one of the lowest paid employees at Yelp wrote an open letter crying out for help and she had been subject to online public humiliation and was later fired by the Yelp CEO, Jeremy Stoppelman for simply writing about her economic woes. The San Francisco Bay Area was no longer the same home of my childhood; the sense of good will that used to be part of the population no longer existed in the same concentration.

Instead, that good will became replaced by a sense of entitlement, one that has been reiterated in popular Silicon Valley leaders; in the essays of Paul Graham, one of the founders of Y-Combinator, who has written that "economic inequality is good" a sentiment that is reminiscent of the "greed is good" mantra of the 1980s.

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Paul Graham's mantra "economic inequality is good" is reminiscent of the "greed is good" mantra of the 1980s. 

Paul Graham says that every city has a particular calling and that: "In Silicon Valley, no one is impressed if you inherited a billion dollars (whereas New Yorkers are)." I wonder though if Mr. Graham has ever spent time in Nob Hill, Pacific Heights or the Marina? Or perhaps even Atherton, CA? It appeared to me that San Francisco and Silicon Valley was just as obsessed with inherited wealth as anywhere else in the world, if not more so. However, I suppose being quarantined on Sand Hill Road, perhaps many people there would be even more impressed by self-made millionaires and billionaires, since the majority of the people in California with inherited wealth didn't dare traverse into Palo Alto anyway outside of the Stanford campus; however I think he unfairly paints New York City in a negative light when really many parts of the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley also have this pervasive view of something beyond elitism: hatred for their fellow humanity. Hatred for anyone who isn't an engineer working for unicorn companies.

Who really cares if a wounded U.S. veteran who did 4 tours in the Iraq War can no longer afford his house because his modest pension doesn't pay for the rising housing costs in SF? Who cares if many people are living in their cars or can't shower? They deserved  to be homeless because they didn't study engineering and end up working for Google or Uber.

In my mind, the foremost question remained, How could a city that is home to the most number of American billionaires allow so much of their population to exist in poverty and homelessness? 

Don't get me wrong. I love so many things about San Francisco, and the education I had received in the Bay Area. I could not have had a more liberal, experimental and oftentimes, surreal education. My high school wasn't anything extraordinary- it was an ordinary American public high school filled with primarily middle class and working class students. One extraordinary thing about my high school was that there were no bullies at my school. We were strangely, a group of very progressive students who were accepting of everyone's individuality- even the girl in my biology class who told us in class one day that she had an extra chromosome which made her seem "more masculine" as we were studying the chapter on genetics. In our minds, this was perfectly normal; in the sense that everyone was "similar but different." We embraced our individuality. We weren't all born to become engineers and doctors nor forced to think so. My history teacher was also the first to tell me, "History books don't always tell the truth. Books are re-written by the victors." It was something that would've never occurred to my 15-year-old self, to question authority, yet my education there instilled in me, that very value: To forever question authority.

However, when I walk around San Francisco, and see so much homelessness, crime and despair, I can't help but wonder, Where did we go wrong?

So it was a surprise and pleasure to become acquainted with Doniece Sandoval, the Founder of LavaMe,  one of the true pioneers of San Francisco. 

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Doniece Sandoval, Founder of LavaMae

Doniece is a San Francisco based entrepreneur who had come up with innovative strategies to help the homeless population in novel and creative ways. Doniece is also, the type of person whom you can never forget. She makes a permanent mark on you, and you can't but help but become influenced by her optimism and positivity. I have previously written about LavaMae here. 

Doniece grew up in Texas, and her father had worked on the War on Poverty progamme under President Johnson's administration. Her mother had also always been involved in charitable organisations. When you first talk to Doniece, you have a feeling that she is someone who is both young-at-heart and an old-soul; she is wise and all-seeing. She is the type of person whom you can go to with all your problems, and she will say, "OK. Let's solve this."

So it's sort of a surprise when she tells me that she had always been self-conscious as a kid. She has always been tall and ethnically ambiguous looking, always aware of other people's perceptions and commentaries about her ethnicity (ie, Spanish/Native-American/Indian on her dad's side and French/Spanish on her mother's side). 

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LavaMae helps San Francisco residents who are homeless to have access to mobile showers and toilets.

One of the defining moments in her life was when her family had almost lost everything. Her father had been a risk-taker as an entrepreneur after his government service; however, like many families in California at the time of the real estate bubble, her family had fallen on hard times, and if it weren't for the help and financial intervention of her grandparents, Doniece tells me, they would've been homeless. So LavaMae is a startup that resonates closely with her heart. One of the powerful moments that she remembers is when she was taking a cab through the Tenderloin district in San Francisco, the cab driver turned to her and said, "Welcome to the Land of Broken Dreams."

It was then then Doniece realised that she had to do something. She was just one person, but she had to do something. She remembers talking to a young homeless girl one day and she had told Doniece that she would never be "clean"; that so much of identity and opportunity was due to the fact that one was "clean and presentable". Later, Doniece saw in the paper that old Muni buses were up for donation, and suddenly, the many interconnecting pieces in her mind's eye fit together in which she came up with the idea to transform these old buses into mobile shower stations for the homeless. 

"They use buses for portable food trucks, why not showers?" 

-Doniece Sandoval, Founder of LavaMae

At first people thought she was crazy, but she started an Indie-Go-Go campaign with her husband to raise funds and later, she spoke at New York's Toyota Mothers of Invention conference,  and started receiving offers of donations from all sorts of patrons in the New York community. New York City has always had a long history of philanthropy and investment in the art community. In fact, the single largest donor of LavaMae comes not from San Francisco, but New York City. 

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Doniece Sandoval was one of the speakers at the Toyota Mothers of Invention World Summit in New York City.

I asked Doniece, "Do you think it’s ironic that San Francisco is home to the most number of American billionaires and unicorn (billion+ valuation) companies, yet the city is plagued by such a high percentage of homeless people?"

Doniece laughs, an ironic sort of laugh that is bittersweet. Her laughter is akin to a Shakespearian character in a play in which there is no distinction between tragedy and comedy. She pauses for a moment and then tells me diplomatically that, "the level of compassion in San Francisco has eroded; hatespeak and vitriol of the political process had taken over, personified by Donald Trump." However, Doniece tells me that although, "There is a strong voice of hatred and level of apathy present here, there's also a lot of compassion and large/ small acts of kindness on a daily basis. Our volunteers/supporters for example give tremendously of themselves in many ways. There are everyday heroes throughout this city; they, thankfully, keep the spirit of SF's patron saint alive and well."

I have written previously that the rising cost of housing is actually the cause of many people to become homeless in many cities such as San Francisco and Seattle, and that many homeless people are actually women and children leaving abusive homes. I think because many of us only are aware of panhandlers on the street that we erroneously believe that that they are homeless due to being "lazy" or not being hardworking. Many homeless people also become homeless also due to being handicapped, are U.S. veterans and cannot live on their modest pensions, in addition to the majority of people who cannot live on minimum wage. It's not that the homeless are lazy, but that they have no other viable choices.

Doniece also tells me that a family of 4 making $75K/year was considered in the poverty range in San Francisco.

 When you have a city with so many billionaires and multi-millionaires, $75K cannot afford you a living income for a family where the real estate was exploding into the millions for a simple 3-bedroom apartment. 

Currently, Doniece is also furthering the goals of LavaMae with pilots of a new programme called, "Pop-Up Care Village" in which LavaMae will host quarterly services providing hygiene, development, veteran services, and free access to public defenders for people on the streets to get their lives back together.

"Homeless people often get citations, just for being on the street and being homeless," Doniece tells me. "When they acquire 23 citations, they can no longer be eligible to go to shelters or get a driver's license at the DMV. Our "Pop-Up Care" services will help them get access to a public defender that will remove all their citations so that they may get a clean slate to start a new life free from barriers."

In our conversation, I was altogether awestruck by the anthology of Doniece's wisdom, compassion, empathy and business sense. What is the advice you would give to social entrepreneurs? I asked her.

"Be authentic. Posturing never gets you anywhere...When you meet investors, show up as yourself; embrace your vulnerability, and bring that to the arena...and never be afraid to ask for help." -Doniece Sandoval, Founder of LavaMae on social entrepreneurship