The sun was at its peak when the Midnight Mission began serving lunch on San Pedro Street in single file.
Sweat ran down the backs of homeless men and women queuing for something to eat – and drink. The latter was becoming increasingly difficult to obtain as the summer heat set in for Los Angeles, the US city with the largest homeless population.
For the Midnight Mission, which serves the growing ranks of the homeless, this has meant a growing need for water donations.
“Water is not a privilege; it’s mandatory,” said Georgia Berkovich, the mission’s director of public affairs. “And even more so now, we’re seeing more and more people coming to fetch water, and we’re seeing more and more heat-related illnesses in dumps.”
Like many LA neighborhoods, Skid Row is an urban heat island, where roads and other infrastructure absorb and reflect the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes such as forests and bodies of water.
The non-profit organization Midnight Mission provides basic needs for homeless and nearly homeless people, including three times daily meal services, access to water and cooling stations.
During meal service, 500 to 1,000 people will line up. says Berkovitch there is still a shortage of water, but the mission needs more now, especially since some major donors have left the area.
Water Drop LA, a self-help organization that works in a row of skids, focuses on keeping homeless people hydrated. The group distributes about seven pallets of bottled water each weekend, bringing it directly to people in tents.
Co-founder Aria Cataño says homeless people have limited options for getting water. If they don’t get it from organizations like Water Drop, they sometimes dip into fire hydrants to do their dishes and wash their bodies.
“I think I see people getting water most of the time however they can,” said Sade Kammen, a Water Drop employee.
Cataño and Kammen say organizations like theirs are just band-aids that temporarily address the larger issue of lack of resources and access to refuge from the heat. Over the years, the city has taken initiatives to provide these resources, they said, but the COVID-19 pandemic has stalled that progress.
The city had installed a series of temporary water fountains attached to fire hydrants, but removed them over fears they could become sources of the spread of the coronavirus.
“If you’re worried about the spread of germs killing people,” Cataño said, “you should also be worried about dehydration killing people.”
Fueled by climate change, the drought has exacerbated heat and drinking water shortages, according to a California State Water Resources Control Board audit released last week.
“California is in the midst of a historic drought, which will only increase pressure on many struggling water systems,” wrote California State Auditor Michael Tilden.
Mark Rodriguez, a Midnight Mission security guard, said the heat was brutal.
“I’m going to walk down the street, give water to the people lying there, because it’s so hot,” he said.
Stafford Wilson, who is not housed, said he was grateful for the water he receives during mission meal services. He says some people don’t understand the impact of dehydration on the body.
“The body needs water, and when they give it up, the body will give it up,” he said.
In recent weeks, the Midnight Mission has launched social media and email campaigns in hopes of boosting donations, including water, from community members.
“I think maybe people are experiencing more warmth in their pitches, maybe they’re feeling more compassionate,” Berkovich said. “So the donations are starting to pour in, but we’re still running out of water.”