Oakland activists build hand-washing stations for unhoused, as city’s sanitation plan falls short

Unhoused Wood Street resident Stacey Kaplus washes her hands at a volunteer-built sanitation station. | Photos: Zack Haber/Hoodline
By Zack Haber - Published on April 21, 2020.

In early March, Mayor Libby Schaaf announced that the city of Oakland would nearly double its efforts to provide hand-washing stations, hand sanitizer and toilets to unhoused communities — expanding from 20 to 39 sites to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

But on and just west of Wood Street in West Oakland, where a community of over 100 unhoused people reside, no new hand-washing stations have appeared. 

A city-owned hand-washing station was installed on Wood Street sometime in 2016 or 2017, but residents say it was emptied of water long ago and is not being serviced. There’s also no way for residents to obtain fresh drinking water from the city, or use the toilet. 

So a group of about 15 neighbors and housing justice advocates have decided to take on the problem themselves, installing three hand-washing stations and three water storage tanks near the Wood Street community.

“This is something that people have been asking for for years. But now that there’s the COVID-19 crisis, it’s a matter of life and death that they have these things,” said Dayton Andrews, an Oakland resident and member of the United Front Against Displacement (UFAD), which organizes against evictions of unhoused people and advocates for permanent housing. 

Through the UFAD, Andrews has worked with Wood Street residents for the past two years, hosting dinners and community clean-ups. He got the idea for the stations from the Berkeley Free Clinic (BFC), which installed two hand-washing stations and a water storage tank of its own on Wood Street in mid-March. 

The UFAD’s and the BFC’s hand-washing stations and water towers now serve about a dozen unhoused people each, while the city’s hand-washing station — which a November 2019 report says is supposed to be serviced about three times a week — remains dry. 

Activist Dayton Andrews with a water tank he and other volunteers helped build on Wood Street.

UFAD members had to build several different versions of the stations and tanks before finding models that worked well outdoors with regular use. At a cost of $70-120 in materials, their purpose-built stations and tanks use foot pumps and gravity to circulate water, and need to be serviced about once a week. 

Fears of COVID-19 spreading to and from unhoused people have heightened in recent days, after over 100 residents of a San Francisco homeless shelter tested positive for the virus. Setting up services for Wood Street residents is not without risk, for both the volunteers and the community. 

While volunteers are “conscious of social distancing,” Andrews says, “we do, at times, have to come within six feet of each other.” For example, heavy water storage tanks can’t be moved by only one person.

“We’ve been doing everything in as much personal protective equipment (PPE) as possible,” said Andrews, noting that all volunteers don masks and gloves. 

The UFAD volunteers say the efforts are worth it to help Wood Street residents like Stacey Kaplus, 51, who’s been dealing with an infection on her nose that she says resulted from being unable to wash her hands regularly. 

“This is a blessing, because now I can wash my hands and I won’t get infected all the time,” said Kaplus, a 16-year Oakland resident who’s lived on Wood Street for the past year. 

With well over 100 residents on Wood Street, the demand for basic sanitation services remains high, and the UFAD hopes to build more water towers and hand-washing stations to serve them all. If they manage to reach that goal, they hope to expand to another community of unhoused people at 37th Street and Martin Luther King Blvd.

“I’m glad the advocates for the homeless did this for us. It works great,” Kaplus said. “Now we just need some porta-potties, and I’ll be OK.”

UFAD is soliciting donations for its efforts here. Those interested in getting involved can visit the organization’s Twitter and Facebook pages for more information. 

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