TUCKED BEHIND THE tiny-home community called Lakeside Village in Oakland is a seemingly unremarkable utility: a fire hydrant with a water meter jutting off it, chained to an orange construction barricade.
But while the set-up is as nondescript as most municipal water infrastructure, it represents a significant new tactic in an ongoing effort to improve water access for unhoused people.
The Bay Area has come under scrutiny in recent years for failing to provide basic water access to unhoused residents. The fire hydrant water meters offer a way to improve water access without the exorbitant costs of new infrastructure, while allowing the East Bay Municipal Utility District to monitor the amount used and limiting damage to hydrants.
The 12th Street meter reflects the combined effort of volunteers, EBMUD employees, and homeless advocates from around the East Bay, and it was piloted by community activist Kyle Mitchell and the East Oakland Collective back in 2020.
“The idea is that we just connect [unhoused] people to the infrastructure that serves — or is supposed to be serving — everybody, right?” Mitchell said.
Mitchell is a lawyer and volunteer activist who, after moving to Oakland several years ago, began looking for opportunities to support his new community. After getting involved with the East Oakland Collective, he began helping get ID for residents without addresses, provided fire safety materials to unhoused people, and eventually started helping unhoused residents get access to water.
As Mitchell has pointed out, water access is often taken for granted by people who have homes. But it is a big issue for people without houses.
A United Nations report from 2018, for example, stated that a U.N. investigator witnessed officials “attempting to discourage residents from remaining in informal settlements or encampments by denying access to water, sanitation and health services and other basic necessities, [which] … constitutes cruel and inhuman treatment and is a violation of multiple human rights.”
Beholden to businesses for water
The report did not fall on deaf ears, and it has become a key reference point for the wide array of Bay Area groups, agencies, and individuals responding to the area’s housing crisis.
The reality is, however, that most people living on the street still rely on relationships with businesses for even basic water access. Despite the proliferation of people and agencies looking for solutions to the wide range of issues that come with being homeless, few solutions have been found for water access.
Homeless advocates say the most frequently used volunteer strategy for providing water is to buy flats of bottled water and drop them off or hand them out individually to individuals at encampments, as Mitchell once did. While immediately helpful, however, this strategy typically doesn’t provide enough water for daily human use, isn’t consistent enough for unhoused people to rely on, and can be cost-prohibitive for volunteers and mutual aid programs.
“We don’t need a giant truck. We don’t need to drive water around anymore. We just need to find a hydrant that’s close to the camp where there are containers to fill.”Kyle Mitchell, community activist behind hydrometer program
After witnessing those limitations first-hand, Mitchell started to look for other solutions. With the help of the East Oakland Collective and a handful of donors, Mitchell wrote to EBMUD proposing that it lease the East Oakland Collective a water meter that could be attached to a fire hydrant. These “hydrometers” allow water from the hydrant to be both accessed and metered according to city rates.
“We don’t need a giant truck,” Mitchell said. “We don’t need to drive water around anymore. We just need to find a hydrant that’s close to the camp where there are containers to fill.”
While tapping into a water main can take years and cost $80,000 or more, the hydrometer allows Mitchell and Eat Oakland Collective to provide people access to already existing infrastructure for the price of a $1,000 deposit and a water bill.
And Mitchell and his partners saw another benefit of the meters: the potential to limit damage to fire hydrants, which are often accessed illegally and sometimes damaged in the process. With fires a major safety concern in encampments, making sure hydrants work and are easily accessible is a big safety issue for residents and first responders.
Pumped about potential benefits
The proposal to use fire hydrant water meters to provide water for individuals was a new one for EBMUD policymakers. The hydrometers are typically intended for short-term use at construction projects, and East Oakland Collective’s plan had the potential to run up against a variety of policy restrictions.
But it had clear upsides for unhoused residents and the city, so the collective succeeded in negotiating a year-long lease from EBMUD for one hydrant water meter. It also provided the money, raised through private donations, for the monthly water bill, while Mitchell stored the meter in his Oakland garage and spent weekends driving from encampment to encampment, filling containers for people living near hydrants.
The program proved relatively successful, as Mitchell and other volunteers dedicated much of their 2021 weekends to hauling the meter from Mitchell’s garage to encampments throughout the East Bay. People living in various temporary East Bay communities were able to semi-regularly fill containers with water through the meter.
The program did run up against challenges, however. The most obvious was the limitation of working on a volunteer basis. As Mitchell says, “Our goal was to build on this. We didn’t see volunteers running around using this as a solution.”
And indeed, although the East Oakland Collective returned their hydrometer in January of this year, the project has been a foundation for this strategy being used elsewhere. A representative for EBMUD, Andrea Pook, said the East Oakland Collective’s work opened the door for other hydrometer leases.
“Essentially East Bay MUD revised its regulations to allow for the use of these hydrant meters, really as a stopgap measure,” Pook said. “It’s really considered emergency use, emergency use for sanctioned homeless encampments.”
Though Pook is quick to stress that these meters are not a long-term solution for water needs, as a result of this policy change, hydrometers are being used to provide water access to at least one other camp — the city-run Lakeview Village encampment at Lake Merritt.
While the East Oakland Collective’s meter was never allowed to be even semi-permanently installed, the one at 12th street is chained to its hydrant and attached to a long PVC pipe which directs water to the nearby tiny-home community. The meter is not permanently installed, but it is semi-permanently attached, providing more stability than the volunteer-transported original. And because the camp is a site serviced by the city, the city of Oakland is footing the water bill, Pook said.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH BY GOODWERKS
Like Kyle Mitchell and the East Oakland Collective, Berkeley’s nonprofit Goodwerks organization is seeking to solve issues of water access.
Goodwerks works closely with the Berkeley Free Clinic to maintain 275-gallon drums of water near a number of homeless communities in the East Bay. The drums include foot-pump mechanized taps and soap, and are slightly chlorinated to make them drinkable.
They are filled on a weekly basis by Goodwerk’s two employees.
To do that, Nick Guerrette and Zachary Ferguson pick up a utility truck from near the Berkeley marina, drive to the Berkeley Free Clinic, fill the truck’s container from the clinic’s hose, and then drive to the various locations of the street-side drums to fill them.
The process takes several hours and, though not expensive, sometimes stretches the resources of the program. (Guerrette and Ferguson are the only two employees of the company, and both note the challenges of keeping the drums filled and in good condition, given their other full-time obligations.) Like the organizers of the hydrometer program, they are quick to point out that theirs is not a sustainable long-term solution.
Despite the significant obstacles, though, Ferguson notes that he finds it “pretty remarkable, the interest in doing this kind of work … which I think speaks to momentum for overall better systems.”
— Anna Kristina Moseidjord