Unhoused Berkeley, CA Residents Struggle for Water During Pandemic

    There’s a cruel irony to lacking access to quality water as the sky pours rain, a luxury development’s fountain spews a waterfall around the corner, and the bay is within walking distance.

    Such is the case for the unhoused residents of an encampment on the border of the California cities of Berkeley and Emeryville, whom I visited on a March afternoon that cycled between intermittent showers and partly-cloudy skies. It’s located along train tracks and near the highway, with no clear businesses or public facilities in the immediate area that would be willing to offer a restroom or sink.

    The water insecurity of these unhoused residents, as well as others across the East Bay, is being addressed by the Curbside Community Water Project, a new grassroots initiative that installs and maintains outdoor sinks attached to huge 275-gallon tanks of drinking water. 

    “I’m happy to see it,” one camp resident, preferring to go unnamed, told me over cigarettes, as two volunteers with the Berkeley Free Clinic (BFC), a “radical, do-it-yourself health collective” that kicked off the Project, packed up their truck and pulled off to refill water at the next campsite. BFC has estimated that a total of roughly 250 residents live at the six encampments serviced by the Project, according to Nick Guerette, BFC’s operations lead and a community counselor.

    The Project aims to promote unhoused East Bayers’ access to potable water amid the COVID-19 lockdown. What that means on the ground is relatively simple. Project volunteers fill up the truck tanks at BFC, adding bleach to maintain the water’s potability, and then haul them to the four sites around Berkeley, as well as the neighboring cities of Emeryville and Oakland. Once on site at the encampments, the tanks are topped off and tested to ensure proper levels of chlorine from the bleach.


    A Community Response

    Bringing quality water to unhoused residents in the East Bay was truly a community effort.

    Soon after COVID-19 arrived in the Bay Area, Nick Guerette knew unhoused residents would need new sanitation resources. In early to mid-March, Guerette and members of the BFC Street Medicine Team installed hand sanitizers at encampments in Berkeley and Oakland.

    It soon became clear to BFC that sanitizer was not going to cut it for hands that were already soiled. Handwashing stations devised from stacked buckets, and later to include wooden stands, were developed by Guerette and two clinic members named Zoe and Beth. Then, in April, Andrea Prichett, founder of CopWatch Berkeley, provided Guerette with steel drums to supply the encampments with water.

    Original model of makeshift sink, located at Emeryville’s Shellmound Street encampment


    In June, BFC found an inexpensive truck thanks to help from former Oakland City Council candidate Zoe Lopez-Meraz, which was then fixed up by Amber, a mechanic who already worked with BFC and who herself lives in an RV at one of the encampments serviced by the Project.  


    The Project’s truck 


    The following month, local green business owner Mary Munat got involved. The staff of her zero-waste event services company, Green Mary, began providing water deliveries. Now, the Project is being handed off to Munat’s new nonprofit, Goodwerks, which she says aims “to fill the gap in services needed now that events were shut down.” Munat is also looking to bring water tanks to unhoused people in Sonoma County, where she lives. 

    In total, four encampments have the huge tanks, while two have just the makeshift sink.


    A February 8, 2021 video on BFC’s work by Americares


    Where Is the City?

    The City of Berkeley has provided some financial backing and practical aid. For the span of the shelter-in-place order, $10,000 was authorized by the City Council to be made available to support the water stations.

    “The City worked with outreach teams to provide bag food, warm meals and water to unhoused people,” a City of Berkeley spokesperson told Filter. “Berkeley Free Clinic volunteers requested City financial support to cover the costs of water tanks and handwashing stations. The City allocated $10,000 to BFC’s effort and is now working with BFC and Good Werks to implement the program, including regular water testing by the City’s Environmental Health Division.”

    The spokesperson added that, “Due to the pandemic, the City sited 31 handwashing stations throughout Berkeley to provide unhoused people access to hygiene resources. It also provides bottled water to outreach teams to distribute.”

    Guerette said that the City has installed two running water stations connected to existing spigots that are “arguably within walking distance of two of the major encampments.”

    But community members behind the Project say that government authorities are not doing enough. “It seems like such a bureaucratic mess—and it’s not even that much money!” Stephanie Lister, a volunteer with the Project, told me, referring to BFC’s challenge to simply invoice the City for their work.

    Meanwhile, Prichett said, “Underlining this whole thing is a frustration that the City is not competent to do this. It’s infuriating: [water access is the] most basic of rights.” Yet community members and advocates are having to create DIY solutions.  

    Not only could the City of Berkeley be doing more, say advocates, but local politicians are acting against the interests of their unhoused constituents. “Grassroots orgs are doing a lot of the leg work,” said Lister. But then: “On the ground outreach is undone” by city government policies. For example, Lister noted a September 15, 2020 item that was approved by the City Council; it called for increased overnight policing of a park. Student activists noted in an op-ed that this paves the way for displacement, running counter to public health guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    “I’m angry that this is the state of how hundreds of people are living,” said Guerette, referring to the water insecurity. “I’m glad we’ve been able to do what we’ve done so far.”

    The struggle for water, though, is couched within an untenable situation. “The holy grail,” Guerette added, “is everyone getting housing.”



    Update, March 16: This article was updated to included comments from the City of Berkeley spokesperson.

    All photographs, including top photograph of Curbside Community Water Project volunteers, by Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard

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