Santa Clara County limits water handouts for homeless residents
About a dozen unhoused people reside in the encampment established on the corner of Branham Lane and Monterey Road in San Jose. Photo by Vicente Vera.

Some activists claim the county is no longer providing them water to take to homeless encampments—a service offered over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gail Osmer, an advocate for houseless communities, said throughout the pandemic she’s gotten multiple cases of water from the county Office of Supportive Housing to distribute. But earlier this month, she says the county refused to give her water, citing too many requests.

In an email to Osmer, a county worker said water is only being given out during “inclement weather activations”—such as certain days with extremely hot temperatures.

“This is just not right,” Osmer told San José Spotlight, adding that she recently visited an encampment that relies on her for water. “I promised I’d bring them water, and I don’t have water to give them.”

Extreme heat is a growing problem for communities throughout Silicon Valley. People flocked to public cooling centers in San Jose last month during a heat wave. Data on heat-related fatalities is unavailable in Santa Clara County, but hundreds of people die in the U.S. every year from heat illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Homeless individuals are especially vulnerable to extreme heat because they have less access to air conditioning and water, which makes the resources provided by outreach teams and activists a critical part of their survival.

Santa Clara County has not changed its policy regarding water distribution to the unhoused community, a spokesperson told San José Spotlight, noting that the county stopped giving water to outreach groups in June.

“The standard practice for the Office of Supportive Housing has been to distribute emergency supplies, such as water, to outreach groups during inclement weather activations, based on National Weather Service forecasts,” the spokesperson said.

What this means in practice is difficult to say. The spokesperson did not specify a temperature when emergency services are activated. A 2017 document from the Santa Clara County Office of Emergency Management includes a heat index that shows substantial danger of heat-related disorders depends on a combination of heat and humidity, but generally becomes more dangerous once temperatures are in the mid-80s.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many places that offered water for homeless people closed to prevent the spread of the virus, the spokesperson said. To fill the temporary gap in resources, the county provided water to outreach groups who did not have their primary water sources available.

“These resources are now back open and available, and the county continues working with its many partners to meet the needs of our unhoused community members,” the spokesperson said.

For some activists, there isn’t a good replacement for the crates of water they received from the county. Scott Largent, a homeless activist and van dweller, said for the past year he picked up crates of water from a warehouse operated by the county and distributed them to different camps around San Jose.

He said the network of activists distributing water to camps was critical during the height of the pandemic and remains so now as the surge in Delta variant infections dampens expectations of a new normal.

“Once they started distributing it, it was so necessary because buildings were shut down, the courthouse, county buildings, the sheriff’s department—they also disabled the water fountains,” Largent said. “I’m just amazed, with the Delta variant and not being out of (COVID), that they’re stopping this.”

Homeless residents often lack basic amenities such as water, port-a-potties and hand washing stations, with access sometimes dependent on where an encampment is located.

Largent added that water is the main resource that houseless people need, especially during the summer months.

“It’s honest to God like handing out $100 bills,” he said. “It’s the main thing that people are asking for—they would rather have water than food.”

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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