Lack of Water For Hygiene Can Perpetuate Homelessness

Jun 10, 2019

The latest point in time homeless count found that in Lane County more than 2,100  people are without adequate housing. People who are unhoused face challenges to their health, safety and well-being. 

Kris McAlister was once homeless. Now he serves on the Lane County Poverty and Homelessness Board.
Credit Denise Silfee

For many people, all it takes to maintain personal hygiene is adequate housing. We expect access to running water for washing faces, brushing teeth and showering to be included in the housing we buy or rent.

For unhoused members of the community, a lack of access to running water has consequences for social inclusion and physical health.

KRIS MCALISTER: “My name is Kris McAlister and I was former homeless.”

McAlister was on the streets by the time he was 15 years old and didn’t get into housing until he was 22.

KRIS MCALISTER: “As an unhoused person I got to experience needing a bathroom, needing a shower, needing to wash my clothes, needing a drink. Needing to have a safe place to be to take care of those intimate and socially responsible items.”  

McAlister currently lives in Springfield and serves on the Poverty and Homelessness Board for Lane County. He also helps facilitate a group called Lived Experience Advisor Group for Unhoused Engagement, or ‘LEAGUE’, that is made of representatives who are currently unhoused or formerly unhoused. LEAGUE has made sanitation one of its initiatives this year.

KRIS MCALISTER: “I’m not going to say water is a human right, it’s a human need. We should make it a human right, but, until we get there, we should at least accommodate the need.”

McAlister’s advocacy is rooted in his personal experience. He remembers trying to get to a job interview without having had access to water to clean up:

KRIS MCALISTER: “One of the times I was homeless, I had to walk – the bus drivers were on strike – on one of the hottest days, I’m in a suit I borrowed and I’m walking and I’m soaked with sweat, I get to my thing and they were like I think you’re at the wrong office. I was like no I’m here for – and they were no, I really think you’re at the wrong office.”

McAlister says the experience stuck with him.

KRIS MCALISTER: “What am I supposed to do? Society says go get a job. Society says look like you want to be with the rest of us. Don’t look dirty, wash your face, wash your hands, be clean. Don’t put that on, it’s dirty. When was the last time you showered? You stink. Then we tell people go get a job. But we don’t have anywhere for them to wash.”

Anand Holtham-Keathley is a registered nurse who works in the communicable disease division at Lane County Public Health. He also volunteers at Occupy Medical in Springfield, a nonprofit organization run by volunteers that believe access to health care should not be based on one’s ability to pay. Many of Occupy Medical’s patients are unhoused, and many of their health concerns could be improved simply with access to water for personal hygiene.

ANAND HOLTHAM-KEATHLEY: “You see a lot of foot and leg wounds because a lot of these people are on their feet a lot, do not get much rest. If you can’t get it, you’ll develop blisters, you develop pressure sores, and eventually those develop into deep wounds.”

Unhoused people living outdoors are more susceptible to wounds that many housed people do not regularly experience. Holtham-Keathley says living outdoors, people are making campfires and breaking up wood with their hands.

ANAND HOLTHAM-KEATHLEY: “You’ll see hand wounds and things like that, so we treated a lot of those. If you don’t treat them of course eventually you get infections, infections, if not treated themselves, eventually lead to sepsis and put someone in the hospital and even kill somebody.”  

Lack of water for proper hydration leads to other health concerns.

ANAND HOLTHAM-KEATHLEY: “None of your systems are going to work properly if you’re not sufficiently hydrated. None of them. Your endocrine system, the ability of your body to process sugars, your ability to heal wounds, the ability to think properly. There is absolutely no system that is going to work properly if you don’t have hydration.”  

Providing water outside of housing is challenging and expensive. Advocates call for long-term solutions like affordable housing and more low-barrier temporary shelter options where people can access showers, toilets and sinks. In the meantime, service providers continue to look for creative solutions to immediate problems. Water to provide medical care is one immediate need that White Bird Clinic in Eugene has tried to address.

Chris Hecht, the executive coordinator of White Bird Clinic in Eugene, says that a previous attempt to provide hot, running water to existing homeless rest stops have been unsuccessful due to the high costs of new infrastructure. The idea was to provide hot and cold running water so that people caring for wounds have a place to stay while they recover.

CHRIS HECHT: “Many of them require three times a week or even daily care for their wounds if they are to heal well and quickly.”

Hecht says that increased services need to be in locations where people currently live or gather. Just like their housed neighbors, individuals experiencing homelessness have strong ties to their neighborhoods, and are less likely to access services that require transportation.

Again, Kris McAlister:

KRIS MCALISTER: “Housing is medicine, but so is cleanliness.”

McAlister connects personal well-being with feeling good about yourself. Access to water for personal hygiene allows people to maintain their health and to have a choice in the way they are seen in the community.

This story was produced in collaboration with the UNESCO Crossings Institute at the University of Oregon.