Water for All: a Human Need, a Human Right

The COVID-19 virus and subsequent Shelter In Place (SIP) order have had stark, profound impacts on the daily lives of almost all San Franciscans, and, let’s face it — 2020 is unlikely to make anyone’s “Best Year of the Decade” list. For folks like me, our cubicles and offices have been replaced by our tiny kitchens and messy bedrooms, and the workweek has become a steady stream of endless — and sometimes pointless — Zoom meetings. Half of the neighbors on my block of Hayes Street have moved away during the pandemic, and the new ones have faces that I may not see for at least six months or more. “Honey, does this new mask make my face look fat?” is now a sentence I’ve said on multiple occasions, and probably will again, and I’m about as likely to snack on raw chicken as I am to board the 22 Fillmore these days. After nine months of SIP, nothing about the “new normal” really feels normal, nor does it even feel particularly new anymore.

One of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the pandemic has been the Tenderloin, where the pre-existing economic and social conditions and inequalities made COVID-19 a loaded gun.  

For the Tenderloin neighborhood, which some estimates say is home to close to 2,000 unhoused residents, there is exactly one available shower facility, open four hours per day, three days per week. That location had to temporarily cut back service to two days per week during the summer due to the overload and strain put on its largely volunteer staff. 

The situation for drinking water is just as dire. Many existing water fountains are located behind gates or in parks where homeless people have historically been discouraged from going. At the beginning of the pandemic, the City installed temporary manifolds — pipes with multiple connecting points — on six TL fire hydrants and distributed 1,500 collapsible water bags to unhoused residents so that they could draw and collect water for drinking and other uses. The stated intent was to eventually replace all six manifolds with permanent filling stations. The water bottles quickly proved to be leaky and inconvenient to use, and by midsummer, there were only three manifolds left, with no permanent replacements. After widespread community outrage at their removal, a fourth manifold was returned to the neighborhood, and in November the City took delivery of 12 permanent filling stations to be installed and service the water needs of its unhoused residents. The Public Utilities Commission has targeted three of those stations for installment in the TL, a 50% reduction of its earlier commitment: three glorified drinking fountains to service 2,000 people, and 12 total citywide to service a population of nearly 10,000. 

The City can do better. 

Water access isn’t just about drinking. Having adequate clean water can be the difference between someone showing up in clean clothes for a meal, job interview or housing assessment, or choosing to stay inside their tent, dirty, ashamed and alone. 

Water access allows dignity. “There are things people take for granted until you have to beg for them — then your worldview changes,” says Sam Dennison of Faithful Fools, a Tenderloin nonprofit that works with residents experiencing poverty. “Many people in our neighborhood have to ask for water every time they get thirsty. Water isn’t just a human right, it’s a human need. Human dignity is best served when everyone has access to the water that they need wherever they live and wherever they spend the day.”

Water access is also harm reduction, especially in the time of COVID. Del Seymour, the co-chair of San Francisco’s Local Homeless Coordinating Board and founder of Code Tenderloin, a nonprofit that has distributed food, masks and other emergency supplies to thousands of TL residents, says, “We distribute both kinds of masks — paper and cloth — and let me tell you, a cloth mask don’t mean a fucking thing after a day to someone who can’t wash it. But sometimes that’s all they can get.”

Not only can the City do better, it must. That’s why this month, the Coalition on Homelessness will be launching its Water For All campaign. The goals are twofold: to increase public awareness of the realities of a life on the streets without sufficient water, and to increase the City’s commitment to meeting the water needs of its unhoused residents. Currently, residents of a Syrian refugee camp are guaranteed better water and hygiene access than unhoused people living in the TL. City Attorney Dennis Herrera, in a letter to organizations intervening in this year’s lawsuit brought by UC Hastings College of the Law against the City, said that “the City disagrees with Intervenors’ assertion that it is bound by U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees standards,” but what are unhoused persons if not refugees targeted for displacement and removal? We owe them the same dignity that we demand of countries seeking aid that have internally displaced persons of their own.