Jugs of water and equipment on a table. A masked man comes out of a makeshift shack carrying another.
Derrick Soo, who lives in a homeless camp on 77th Avenue, uses an elaborate system to access water for drinking and cleaning from a fire hydrant. Credit: Amir Aziz

For Derrick Soo and his neighbors at East Oakland’s 77th Avenue homeless camp, water is “liquid gold.” 

“You need it for cooking, for washing, for keeping yourself clean during COVID,” said Soo. But without access to a faucet, basic daily tasks become a challenge. And when small fires start—as they often do in and around the East Bay’s many homeless camps—there’s nothing to toss on the flames, said Soo, who documents life in the camp where he’s lived since 2014 on his Youtube channel.

Soo used to spend a lot of money buying bottled water from a grocery store vending machine. Now he gets his water from a fire hydrant near his campsite. It’s a common practice among unhoused people who often open hydrants out of desperation. But water from hydrants is often unclean, and unauthorized access can render hydrants unusable for firefighters during emergencies. Soo has the special wrench needed to access the hydrant without stripping it, but that’s not the case for most of his friends, he told The Oaklandside.

Now Soo is among a small group of unhoused residents, advocates, and organizations asking the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) to make it safer and easier for homeless people to access potable water in Oakland, Berkeley, and beyond. The group, which includes the East Oakland Collective, Berkeley Free Clinic, and Abode Services, sent a letter to EBMUD the day after Thanksgiving, proposing changes they believe will ultimately save the district and homeless people money while making water more available to people on the streets.

The group is suggesting a program to allow designated, trained nonprofits or homeless camp residents to safely attach equipment to hydrants that depressurizes, filters, and releases clean water. Nonprofits that qualify to participate in the program would track and pay for their water use. Already, commercial customers like truck operators can get hydrant meter attachments from EBMUD to access large quantities of water from hydrants, the letter notes. Other water utilities have similar programs for smaller-scale uses like landscaping and pest control, it says. 

“The program gives these users a responsible, accountable, and convenient way to access the water system for their particular needs,” the group wrote in its letter to EBMUD. “It discourages provision of water by illicit means, and without proper equipment training, by providing legitimate access, equipping with the right tools, and communicating responsible operating standards.”

Soo, who said he used to work for EBMUD in the 1980s, noted that the utility locked up one of the hydrants near his camp to prevent illegal access. 

“In my camp, I have the filter, the pressure regulator, and the proper hydrant tool,” Soo said. “But hydrants are often left open and get badly damaged. If EBMUD gave a certain amount of access to water a day, they would not have the problems they’re currently fighting with. All these really big issues would disappear.” 

Where to get free drinking water in Oakland

The East Oakland Collective offers food and supplies to unhoused residents, for pickup or delivery. Call 510-990-0775

East Oakland Burrito Roll delivers water, along with food and other supplies, directly to homeless camps.

West Oakland Punks With Lunch has supplies, including bottled water, available every Sunday from 3:30-5:30 p.m. at 35th and Peralta streets, and elsewhere throughout the week. See the full outreach schedule online or call 510-761-9795.

Homies Empowerment runs a Freedom Store every Tuesday at 7631 MacArthur Blvd. Arrive after 6 a.m. to pick up a number; the line begins to form at 9 a.m., and the store opens at 10 a.m. Items vary week to week.

The homeless residents and advocates are also asking for permission for existing EBMUD customers, including housed individuals and businesses, to give their water to homeless camps. According to the advocates who penned the letter, it’s illegal for a shop owner to bring jugs of tap water to the homeless camp across the street, and a homeowner can’t supply a couple cups to the man sleeping on the sidewalk down the block. (An EBMUD spokesperson said she couldn’t confirm whether those uses would violate the policy, but she said the regulation prevents a public health risk that may occur if water is transported elsewhere. The policy specifically refers to the illegal resale of water, too.)

“There are businesses and people doing an incredible kindness to their neighbors, but it’s under the table,” said Kyle Mitchell, a lawyer who lives in North Oakland and is one of the advocates asking EBMUD to make water more accessible to homeless people. 

While the regulation in question is rarely or never enforced, its mere existence could discourage people who are looking for a way to help, Mitchell said. So the group is proposing a “good samaritan” policy allowing customers to provide up to 1,000 gallons a month to homeless people.

fire hydrant with rusted cap over entry point
EBMUD has placed caps on some fire hydrants, including this one in East Oakland, to deter unhoused people from accessing the water. Credit: Amir Aziz

“We’re not trying to spring a leak in EBMUD’s control of water, or tap the lines,” Mitchell said. “But where people are interested in helping, especially in warmer months, this is an incredibly important way of doing it.”

Mitchell himself began lugging car-fulls of filtered water in 20-liter containers to camps around Oakland earlier in the pandemic. He began by visiting camps and having discussions with residents about what could be of greatest service to them. He first heard a lot about the difficulties of receiving mail as someone without a permanent address. But he deemed it too great of a COVID-19 risk to spread pieces of paper and packages around the city. When he heard that water was another pressing need—especially during the excruciatingly hot and smoky days this summer and fall—he got to work.

But Mitchell knows it’s not sustainable to focus only on recruiting other “good samaritans” to drive water around town. Trust takes time to build between housed and unhoused residents—and water is very heavy. “I wrenched my back a few good times doing it,” he said. So the group believes the policy change must come with a district-wide program like the hydrant-access proposal, making water directly available near the site of the camps. 

Andrea Pook, spokesperson for EBMUD, said the utility has received and reviewed the group’s proposal.

“It’s a very thoughtful approach to this problem, and we just need to really look at it in more depth,” she said. “We think there might be something there.” 

Pook said EBMUD’s current assistance programs are mainly focused on providing financial relief to low-income, housed customers, especially those who’ve fallen on hard times because of the pandemic. The utility also offers significant discounts to homeless shelters. 

EBMUD leaders, Pook said, will likely review the proposal more closely in the coming weeks and provide a response after the holidays. Any solution, she said, will require collaboration from government agencies like East Bay cities and the California Department of Transportation, since they own most of the land where camps are located. EBMUD is also a government agency with an elected board of directors. Its service area stretches from Crockett in the north to Castro Valley in the south and Walnut Creek and San Ramon in the east.

Regardless of the outcome, Soo, Mitchell, and the other authors of the letter hope to raise awareness of the difficulties unhoused residents encounter trying to access something safe to drink and wash with. While increasing numbers of programs address food insecurity and donate meals to camps, sometimes a simple cup of water is an even more pressing need. 

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.