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Partnership Brings ‘Radical Hospitality’ to Unhoused People Worldwide

The case study of German mobile hygiene startup GoBanyo illustrates the social impacts of the collaboration between Unilever’s The Right to Shower initiative with mobile hygiene pioneer LavaMae^x^ .

Mobile hygiene pioneer LavaMae^x^ shifted its focus late last year from providing direct service to serving as a nonprofit accelerator dedicated to changing the way the world sees and serves our unhoused neighbors. Our goal, with support from soap brand The Right to Shower, is to fully train 75 communities around the globe to collectively serve 100,000 individual guests by 2024; with programs rooted in Radical Hospitality™ — a philosophy of meeting people wherever they are with extraordinary care. The results of this partnership are already showing up on the streets.

The Right to Shower, built as a social enterprise at Unilever, donates 30 percent of profits from its line of head-to-toe cleansers to LavaMae^x^; and also helps fund other shower initiatives that assist people who are moving through homelessness. In turn, LavaMae^x^ advises the brand — identifying, vetting and recommending initiatives for The Right to Shower to fund. Our work with startup service provider GoBanyo in Hamburg, Germany, illustrates both the value of cross-sector collaboration and the well of grassroots energy waiting to be tapped to serve the most vulnerable among us. That’s true especially in the face of a pandemic, with hygiene more important than ever.

The GoBanyo story

Image credit: GoBanyo/©Julia Schwendner

During a decade of living unhoused in Hamburg, access to hygiene was one of the biggest challenges for Dominik Bloh, one of GoBanyo’s founders. Even today, there are only 17 showers available at day shelters for the 2,000 unhoused residents in this city of 1.8 million. When he finally got his own apartment, Bloh wrote a book about his experiences (a 2017 bestseller) and became a full-time activist and advocate for the unhoused.

Around the same time that he began thinking about mobile showers, he came upon LavaMae^x^ and its Radical Hospitality philosophy. The approach resonated with his own experience, and Bloh ran with the concept.

With the help of the LavaMae^x^ DIY Mobile Hygiene Toolkit for replicators, Bloh pulled together a four-person team — and they created the nonprofit, GoBanyo. The founders talked with potential partners (such as the water department) and raised €168,641 through a crowdfunding campaign to fund converting a bus for mobile hygiene.

Hands-on help accelerates impact

The DIY Toolkit was just the start of LavaMae^x^’s support for GoBanyo. In November 2019, GoBanyo partners Joko Weykopf and Jannes Vahl flew to California to spend a day on-site at the LavaMae^x^ shower service in Los Angeles. There, Joey Freid — a replication community engagement lead with LavaMae^x^ — gave them intensive training on shower operations, working with guests and more.

GoBanyo launched shower service in December with Hamburg’s first mobile hygiene bus (Germany’s second). After a couple of months in operation, GoBanyo invited Freid to visit the team in Hamburg. The Right to Shower supported Freid in spending three days with GoBanyo, working alongside and observing the team, providing training and making recommendations.

“We were able to implement best practices that we would otherwise have had to develop ourselves over a long time,” says GoBanyo CEO Christian Poelmann, who handles day-to-day operations. “The training gave us confirmation that we are on the right track and gave us the security we needed to further improve our offering.”

Freid reports doing “lots of advising around on-site staff support and wellness.” The training also provided hands-on work in the philosophy and ideas behind the Radical Hospitality approach, such as always greeting guests by name. “The GoBanyo group was one of the best at Radical Hospitality from the start — it was already their standard.”

The demonstrations of de-escalation tactics were particularly helpful, Poelmann says, citing advice such as how to be watchful “without looking like a cop”; and how to win guests over with “secret gifts,” such an extra T-shirt for someone who has stepped away from a fight or a new pair of socks for a guest who kept to her allotted shower time.

“The training significantly improved our ability to deal with challenging situations, such as arguments or violence on the bus,” he says. “We had underestimated what would be needed in the event of a dispute.”

Sharing knowledge expands impact

GoBanyo scaled up from its launch to provide shower service four days a week at three locations in Hamburg, with a capacity of 120 guests per week. The COVID-19 crisis led to a five-week hiatus; but in cooperation with public swimming pool operator Bäderland, service is now up and running at one location, and the city is providing protective gear. GoBanyo continues to work toward its goal of providing service five days a week and adding a second mobile hygiene bus.

“We want to reach as many people as possible and provide the best possible hygiene service,” Poelmann says. “We are also in contact with other German cities, so we can share our experiences and collective knowledge — that’s very important to us. And we’re planning more campaigns, workshops and lectures.

“The greatest success,” he adds, “would be if there were no homelessness anymore.”

Until that is the case, people experiencing homelessness deserve our care — and the needs are greater now than ever. Communities and activists all over the world are stepping up: GoBanyo is just one of more than 189 programs in in 160 communities in 12 countries that LavaMae^x^ has trained, directly advised or inspired. And with our partners, we will continue to build a care network based on the belief that opportunity unfolds when people are treated with dignity, and that people everywhere will rise to the level of respect they are offered.