Fountain of truth: Sacramento leaves drinking water scarce as homeless population grows larger and summer gets hotter

Nearly 40 percent of city drinking fountains languish in disrepair

Members of Sacramento’s Community Dinner Project serve water and food to homeless people every Tuesday at City Hall.

Members of Sacramento’s Community Dinner Project serve water and food to homeless people every Tuesday at City Hall.

Photo by Michael Mott

This story was made possible by a grant from Tower Cafe.
This is an extended version of a story that ran in the August 10, 2017, issue.

For the 12 years that he’s experienced homelessness, Jeffrey Lobue has traveled in search of water to parks, libraries and the occasional drinking fountain to survive the blistering Sacramento summers.

A former pipelayer, Lobue has even taken it upon himself to repair a few of the broken fountains scattered around Sacramento like cruel mirages, tempting a growing population that relies on them to avoid dehydration and death.

As recently as last year, nearly 40 percent of city-owned drinking fountains—47 of 171—were broken, leaking or clogged, according to city data. Meanwhile, Midtown and downtown Sacramento are complete fountain deserts—there are no public drinking fountains of any kind, working or otherwise.

The problem has attracted new urgency.

An overnight census in January showed that Sacramento County’s unsheltered homeless population rose 110 percent in two years, with more than 2,000 people lacking shelter of any kind on a given night. At least one person died from heat-related causes after being found outside this summer, which just clocked the hottest July on local record.

“Water is our God-given right,” Lobue said. “We should all have access to it.”

The United Nations agrees. In 2012, a U.N. envoy scolded the city for leaving about 50 drinking fountains in disrepair due to budget cuts. The U.N. usually concerns itself with countries, not cities, but found Sacramento’s lack of public facilities and clean water sources for its homeless residents a problem of humanitarian proportions.

Five years since that scathing report, the number of damaged drinking fountains remains largely the same.

“Just about anywhere you go you have to really search for drinking fountains,” Lobue said while waiting in the shade for lunch at Friendship Park downtown. “I’ve done everything from sip water out of the gutter, as long as there’s no oil or taste… I’ll drink water from the river, if I have to.”

Lobue has gotten sick doing that. Baking soda or mustard will soothe stomach aches, he’s learned. But he doesn’t want to get sick anymore.

As Lobue spoke, other homeless people sat beneath misters under the sun at high noon. Three orange Home Depot water jugs, which distribute nearly 200 gallons of water a day, squatted nearby. Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, which operates Friendship Park, dispenses more than 3,300 donated bottles of water a month during summer.

Sacramento summers have risen in temperature every year over the past 20, according to the National Weather Service. Every day of July peaked above 90 degrees, a first for the city. It was the fifth-hottest July in recorded history, and included several triple-digit weeks.

Despite increasing temperatures, City Hall has remained cool to the issue.

On July 25, two activists who have experienced homelessness upbraided the Sacramento City Council for not making water accessible to its residents.

Ed Harris, a formerly homeless resident now living in public housing, told council members that access to water is a human right they were failing to provide.

“We’re dying out in the streets because of summer. … It’s as if someone’s trying to kill us with no water,” Harris said. “We should all feel guilty because we’re not doing enough to help our fellow man.”

David Andre, a longtime activist and homeless resident, noted that a fountain was recently taken out of Neely Johnson Park in the Alkali Flat neighborhood. The city said it was removed because it didn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and current city code.

It won’t be replaced.

“It didn’t meet [ADA] requirements and since we were touching water and irrigation lines, we had to bring it up to current code. The budget didn’t allow for replacing it at this time,” said Jason Weismann of the Parks and Recreation Department.

A drinking fountain at Cesar Chavez Plaza has been repaired this year, though its bathroom remains closed and many fountains are still offline.

“The fact you continue to keep water fountains off and deny human rights to human beings, I believe, should be an imprisonable offense,” Andre told the council.

Just one drinking fountain sits on the American River Parkway. Several have been removed from the K Street mall. Andre hoped the situation would have improved under new Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

Steinberg deferred comment for this story to Marycon Young, a spokeswoman for the city’s departments of Public Works and Parks and Recreation. Young says it all comes down to budgetary challenges that are still being felt after the recession.

The park maintenance budget was cut nearly in half in 2008, she says. Along with other city services, voters thought they would solve the parks cutbacks by approving Measure U, a half-cent sales tax adopted in 2013. But the measure’s $30 million in annual revenue wasn’t enough to fix the backlog of deferred maintenance, Young says.

The worst water fountains are prioritized for repair, she says. The city is working on finding a permanent funding source for park maintenance, Young says, but currently has no plans to build more drinking fountains.

A statewide ballot initiative could provide some financial help.

If passed by voters in November 2018, the measure would make $7.9 billion in bond money available to improve water access at the state and local levels, where “hundreds of thousands of Californians do not have access to safe and dependable drinking water,” the initiative says. Local governments can qualify for the money if they promise a 50 percent match, but that requirement could be waived if their projects benefit disadvantaged communities.

In the meantime, options remain sparse.

As of January, there were about 1,000 shelter beds in Sacramento County—but many shelters don’t allow people to stay inside during the day. A handful of libraries offer refuge. Churches occasionally open for heat relief on their own. Steinberg has proposed letting churches act as year-round temporary residential shelters, an idea that has drawn complaints and opposition from some organized business interests.

The Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, or EJCW, worked with Loaves & Fishes to bring the U.N. envoy to Sacramento’s homeless camps in 2012. That same year, EJCW Executive Director Colin Bailey helped California become the first state to pass legislation designating water as a human right.

The bill requires state agencies to consider this when revising their policies, but doesn’t mandate local jurisdictions to make water more accessible.

Sacramento Regional Transit is repairing 10 fountains within the light rail system.

EJCW is organizing a study to track water access in the Sacramento area. The results are expected early next year.

“There appears to be nothing unique about Sacramento, unfortunately, in how challenging it is for homeless people to access water and sanitation,” Bailey said.

On a statewide level, the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA, conducted 272 inspections and has proposed a total of $917,745 for heat-related workplace citations so far this year. The agency has confirmed two heat-related illnesses at work sites this year. In 2016, Cal/OSHA recorded 52 heat-related illnesses at work sites.

According to the state Department of Industrial Relations, which is the public information arm of Cal/OSHA, 19 Sacramento County businesses violated heat-prevention policies last summer. The city of Elk Grove was one of those employers. Cal/OSHA fined Elk Grove $11,000 in September of last year for not training its employees in heat illness prevention. There was also one on-the-job death, in Fresno.

Since he became the city of Sacramento’s emergency manager 11 years ago, Jason Sirney can’t recall there being a cooling center downtown, where the largest proportion of homeless residents congregate. The closest—open only when there are at least three 105-degree days in a row—is Hart Senior Center on 27th and I streets in Midtown.

Several homeless people who spoke to SN&R said they felt the lack of cooling centers and water sources were discriminatory. They also said that churches and nonprofits are handing out more bottled water than ever, but the timing is inconsistent. A handful of businesses allow water to be poured from spigots.

Sirney raised the prospect of shifting from an emergency-based infrastructure to a seasonal one that provides adequate water and relief from the heat all summer long. “There’s a call for a more routine approach,” he added. “Our biggest limitation is finding a site that’s suitable.”

It can be a life-and-death quest.

In 2015, 3 percent of homelessness-related deaths were caused by hypothermia, according to county coroner data analyzed by the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. Three out of six heat-related deaths confirmed this summer were attributed to hypothermia, according to information provided by Coroner Kimberly Gin.

More anecdotally, the hospital closest to downtown, Sutter Medical Center, treats many heat-related illnesses.

Dr. Arthur Jey, a Sutter emergency room physician, says heat exhaustion and stroke often bring homeless people, construction workers and the elderly to the ER. According to the Coroner’s Office, two people died outdoors this summer, their dehydration exacerbated by methamphetamine intoxication. The other four heat victims were in their 80s and died at home.

At-risk groups include the elderly, who often take medication requiring more water consumption, and children, whose internal cooling systems aren’t completely developed. Migrant workers toiling outside should drink water every 15 minutes, according to the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

When a person can no longer sweat to cool down, Jey says he or she should drink water, get electrolytes from salty or sweet food, and get inside—or to the hospital.

He’ll never forget the man who was admitted to a Santa Cruz ER, where Jey was working as a medical intern. The patient took seizure and anxiety meds with opioids and stayed in an attic for three days, alone, in the summer heat.

He was brought in with a 109-degree body temperature.

“We did all this stuff to cool him, water all over, ice baths, ice in the armpits, but this guy’s brain was cooking,” Jey said. “The guy died. The worst part was it didn’t have to happen.”

As he has done in the past, Jey handed out bottled water this year to Sacramento’s homeless residents.

“We’re all human,” Jey said. “My wife always says, ‘That’s someone’s son or daughter.'”