James Lee Clark wakes up in Sacramento each day, ready to fight for social justice. As a knowledgeable, outspoken, and incredibly well-networked homeless rights activist, Clark may spend his day organizing a protest or direct action, at a city council meeting, running a community dinner, or talking with a group of students from UC Berkeley’s Environmental Law Clinic, as he did one gorgeous day in September. But, before he gets to work each day, Clark must first spend about an hour walking across town to find a public restroom and a place to fill his reusable water bottle. Most Californians cannot fathom such a reality. But we should ask each other to try.
Clark, along with 118,000 other folks, is part of California’s burgeoning population of people experiencing homelessness. And because he is devoted to his dog, Cosmo, and is also, “relatively healthy, so I don’t want to take up a shelter bed that could go to someone who’s not,” Clark is a member of the state’s fastest-growing homeless population—the unsheltered.
For those 78,400 Californians who spend nights on streets, in parks, in vehicles, the struggle to access toilets and clean water for drinking and bathing is central to daily life.
As a housed, middle-class person, it’s hard to imagine as my daily reality those times I’ve been out for a day of meetings or socializing in California cities—San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, Los Angeles—and needed to use a restroom or fill my near-empty Hydroflask. Public restrooms and drinking fountains that are dirty, broken, or shut down are far easier to find than those that are clean, in good repair, or open. My solution is typically to stop at a café, buy a cup of tea, use the restroom, and ask the barista to fill my bottle.
Not so for Mike Wilmarth, a longtime resident of a homeless encampment on Wood Street in West Oakland, who told Bay Area News Group, “that obtaining fresh running water is his biggest challenge.”
Another West Oakland homeless resident, P, says he’s gotten water by getting friendly with housed neighbors who let them use their outdoor spigots. But, reliable access to a restroom is a different matter. There are none within more than a dozen blocks of where he sleeps. He said he often uses the bathrooms in the café he visits to access the internet. When it’s not open, he said he usually relieves himself in a plastic bag and dumps it down a nearby storm drain or places it in a public trash bin. What other choice does he have?
But wait—don’t human beings have a right to water and sanitation?
Yes—and yes again! Access to water is, in fact, an International Human Right,5 one California affirmed in 2012 with Assembly Bill 685, which says, “Every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.”6 Yet, Californians experiencing homelessness,7 like Clark, Wilmarth, and P, don’t have consistent access to these basic needs.
In other words, as Sara Bedford, Director of Human Services, put it, “There is a crisis of health, safety and dignity for unsheltered Oakland residents who are forced to live on streets and under freeways.”
In that case, you might think, cities and counties must be addressing this deficiency in earnest. But, it’s more complicated than that.
The number of unsheltered persons in California cities has skyrocketed in the past 5 or 6 years in tandem with unprecedented rental rates in places like San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley.10
The size of this new, unsheltered population has caught service providers and decision- makers off-guard in a state where for many years “housing first” has—rightfully—been the dominant model. This means communities put all funds allocated for homeless services toward programs that directly help people move into housing. Housing first says that targeting funds to basic services for unsheltered resident, including, temporary shelter, water and sanitation, slows down getting people housed by eating up dollars and “normalizing” homelessness.
But, said Bedford, “The reality is there’s not going to be 2,000 units for everyone on the streets anytime soon.”
With all eyes on the housing prize, said Lara Tannenbaum, who works for Bedford, “It’s taken us all awhile to come around to the idea of putting port-a-potties out, but we’re now all fully there.”
That’s a good thing, since being left with no choice but to relieve themselves in the open leaves homeless people vulnerable to attack, vulnerable to health problems like urinary tract infections associated with “holding it” until they can find a safe place to go, and violates their human dignity. In some cities, they risk being cited or jailed for public urination,13 or even added to sex offender registries for indecent exposure.
Extensive research and interviews indicate these factors don’t seem to be what’s driving Oakland and other cities to prioritize placing and maintaining port-a-potties and, often, accompanying hand washing stations at existing encampments. These actions seem more motivated by complaints about “street feces” lodged by housed residents and business owners. And recent outbreaks of Hepatitis A (which spreads through contact with infected fecal matter) in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Santa Cruz County appear to be increasing local government support for port-a-potties, and hastening their installation.
Human right or not, governments are far less active when it comes to interim efforts to increase access to water.
“[Homeless] People are very concerned,” said Bobby Qui, a formerly homeless Oakland carpenter who spends many hours of uncompensated time each week working alongside his wife, Needa Bee, providing food and water to unsheltered residents, and fighting for interim and permanent housing. “Especially during a heat wave,” Qui said. “People get heatstroke.”
Research shows that lack of access to water causes serious health problems for homeless individuals—dehydration, complications related to diabetes, and sometimes death. These problems are also expensive for taxpayers who must foot the bill for admissions to public emergency rooms and hospitals.
Nevertheless, unlike the restrooms issue, this problem is virtually invisible to housed residents, who are unlikely to contact city officials to request action.
Therefore, according to City of Oakland officials, potable water “doesn’t really come up” in conversations about basic needs services, and is not included in the plans to provide port-a-potties, wash stations, and other services at existing encampments.
When I described to Bedford and Tannenbaum the daily saga Clark, Wilmarth, and P endure in order to access water, they seemed stunned. Tannenbaum said, “We should be thinking more about drinking water as we move forward with our interventions.” Their genuine reaction (and that of other City and County officials I interviewed) indicated to me that the lack of City action to increase water has been an oversight in Oakland—one caused by a culture of complaint-driven policymaking—but an oversight nevertheless.
It also reminded me that as advocates working to ensure our unsheltered neighbors can access their human right to water, it’s critical to make sure decision makers hear their stories. Stories like James Lee Clark’s help those in power imagine what it would be like if finding water was their biggest life challenge. Creating these moments of empathy can help transform an unknown or misplaced problem into a priority in an instant.