Survey finds homeless residents have insufficient access to clean water

Homeless residents in San Francisco struggle to access clean water for drinking and hygiene and need more water stations, especially...

Homeless residents in San Francisco struggle to access clean water for drinking and hygiene and need more water stations, especially in the Tenderloin, according to a report released Tuesday by the Coalition on Homelessness.

The advocacy group took to the streets of the Tenderloin this past winter to assess barriers unhoused citizens face to access water for drinking and hygiene. The report, released March 16, found that 61% of respondents couldn’t access 15 liters of water per day, which is internationally recognized by the United Nations as the lowest standard for adequate water access. For perspective, the average housed San Franciscan uses 155 liters a day, according to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

“Water is the foundation of dignity, health and survival. This is a public health issue at all times, but especially during a pandemic when unhoused people are at heightened risk when they cannot for example wash their hands regularly or keep hydrated,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

Water access has always been challenging for unhoused people, who often have to depend on the courtesy of corner stores, restaurants and buildings with public restrooms to accommodate their needs. The pandemic has made it all the more challenging, according to those surveyed by the coalition. Not only were businesses and public buildings shutting down, but they were met with greater hostility, as if their dirty appearance meant they were positive for COVID-19.

“No water on 6th St.,” one respondent wrote. “Being homeless and looking dirty prevents me from accessing water at a store or restaurant.”

“Corner stores judge you on your appearance and it could mean the difference between if you get water or not,” another one wrote.

Thirty-seven percent of respondents couldn’t access water within a 30-minute commute, which means these individuals have “limited access” to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, according to World Health Organization standards. Many of the public water sources in The City are in tourist areas or parks, not low-income neighborhoods; some respondents said they trek two to five miles to access one of the eight water sources in Golden Gate Park.

For those with disabilities, transporting heavy containers of water is especially challenging.

“I have to make a commute to get water. How do you carry it around with disabilities?” one individual wrote.

The City recognized the lack of water supply facilities as a pressing matter in the 2020 Tenderloin Neighborhood Safety Assessment and Plan for COVID-19, installing six temporary manifolds within a 49-block radius. They are the main source of water for 38% of the study’s participants.

“While all neighborhoods have been impacted in various ways, the Tenderloin faces compounding, pre-existing circumstances that COVID-19 has viciously exacerbated, including an increase in unsheltered homelessness, heightened congregating in permanent supportive housing, and a reduction of quality of life and safety for housed and unhoused residents, alike,” the assessment reads.

John Stiefel, a consultant and volunteer with the Coalition on Homelessness, said from an international perspective, the lack of accessibility compares to that of the Tanzanian refugee camps or low-income neighborhoods in Mumbai. The difference is that those in poverty in other areas of the globe are recognized to be refugees and have allocated resources.

“The average worker in San Francisco makes 65 times that of Nairobi and 206 times that of Mumbai,” Stiefel said. “And yet our residents in informal settlements’ situations are pretty comparable.”

The coalition is asking for solutions from city officials both in the long- and short-term: first, provide at least three more permanent water points in the Tenderloin; then expand public water stations as a whole, for all citizens and visitors. In the longer term, however, The City needs to prioritize permanent housing for unhoused people, the group said.

“I love my city, but I’m embarrassed by my city,” said street medic, homeless advocate and houseless individual Shanna Cooper Orona. “They could go and have permanent housing, they could have water, they could have these things, but they choose not to. They do everything but do what the real thing in your heart tells you to do.”

District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney said the water spigots he has introduced to the neighborhood have received positive feedback from the community, and he hopes to implement more in the future.

“We have a lot of conversations about water to wash, for hygiene. I really think it’s critical that this report has brought the focus also to drinking water, which is most essential,” Haney said. “We’re gonna see how we can we can expand the numbers that are out there, either through partnership … or budget allocations or legislation.”

Will Reisman, a spokesman for San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, said he could not comment specifically on the study but that the city water agency “firmly believes that access to water is an essential human right, which is why we started our drink tap station program 10 years ago with a focus on serving vulnerable communities.”

“Since that program launched, we have installed approximately 180 drink taps, providing free, safe and healthy water to neighborhoods throughout San Francisco. That includes 12 new drink tap stations added to the Tenderloin, Mission and Bayview communities this year, which were installed after consultation and collaboration with neighborhood residents and the Covid Command Center (CCD),” Reisman said. “We will continue to work with our community members in the future on addressing the important issue of water access.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated with additional comment.

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