The sun was at its peak as the Midnight Mission began lunch service on San Pedro Street in skid row.
Sweat dripped down the backs of the unhoused men and women who waited in line for something to eat — and to drink. The latter was becoming harder to procure as the summer heat settled across Los Angeles, the U.S. city with the largest unhoused population.
For the Midnight Mission, which serves the swelling ranks of homeless people, this has meant a growing need for water donations.
“Water isn’t a privilege; it’s mandatory,” said Georgia Berkovich, director of public affairs for the mission. “And even more so now, we’re seeing more and more people coming for water, and we’re seeing more heat-related illnesses on skid row.”
Like many L.A. 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 nonprofit Midnight Mission provides basic needs to unhoused and nearly unhoused people, including meal services three times a day, water access and cooling stations.
During meal service, 500 to 1,000 people will line up. Berkovich says there is always a shortage of water, but the mission needs more now, especially as some large donors have left the area.
Water Drop L.A., a mutual aid organization that works in skid row, focuses on keeping the unhoused hydrated. The group distributes about seven pallets of bottled water every weekend, taking it directly to people in tents.
Co-founder Aria Cataño says homeless people have limited options for getting water. If they’re not receiving it from organizations like Water Drop, they sometimes tap into fire hydrants in order to clean their dishes and wash their bodies.
“I think I see people get water mostly just 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 greater issue of lack of resources and access to refuge from heat. Throughout the years, there have been initiatives by the city to provide these resources, they said, but the COVID-19 pandemic stalled that progress.
The city had installed a series of temporary drinking fountains attached to fire hydrants but removed them because of concerns they could become sources of coronavirus spread.
“If you’re concerned about germ spread killing people,” Cataño said, “you should also be pretty concerned about, like, dehydration killing people.”
Fueled by climate change, drought has exacerbated heat and shortages of potable water, according to an audit of the California State Water Resources Control Board released last week.
“California is in the midst of a historic drought, which will only increase the strain on many struggling water systems,” wrote California State Auditor Michael Tilden.
Mark Rodriguez, a security guard at the Midnight Mission, said the heat has been brutal.
“I’ll be walking up and down the street, giving water to people who are just laid out out there, because it’s so hot,” he said.
Stafford Wilson, who is unhoused, said he’s grateful for the water he gets during the mission’s meal services. He says some people don’t understand the toll dehydration takes on the body.
“The body need the water, and when they forsake that, the body will forsake them,” he said.
In recent weeks, the Midnight Mission has launched social media and email campaigns in hopes of spurring donations, including water, from community members.
“I think maybe as people are experiencing more heat in their locations, maybe they’re feeling more compassionate,” Berkovich said. “So the donations are starting to flow in, but we’re always low on water.”