After a successful Homelessness and Water Symposium held in June 2017¹ , SAWPA and the Inland Empire Waterkeeper partnered to hold a follow-up symposium on December 7th at the Fullerton Public Library Conference Center. Members of water and social service public agencies, as well as elected leaders, nonprofit staff, and community members from Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, Los Angeles, and San Diego counties gathered for discussion about the nexus of homelessness and water.

The interactive format welcomed dialog, such as San Bernardino supervisor Josie Gonzalez, pictured on the right, addressing fellow symposium attendees.

In the photo above, symposium attendees discuss the challenges of good data about people experiencing homelessness while gathered around a map of homeless encampments in the watershed.

The symposium further illuminated the value and appropriateness of partnerships between social services providers and water agencies to support communities of people experiencing homelessness.

To start the day, symposium facilitator Dr. Mike Antos, Senior Watershed Manager at SAWPA, shared that the wildfires in Los Angeles and Ventura counties had prevented panelists Jim Brown of the San Fernando Rescue Mission and Leepi Shimkhada of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services from joining the symposium as planned. He explained that the theme of the event was a progression from the first symposium. At the first symposium the focus was on introducing water managers to the the social services sector players and their ongoing response to homelessness. At this second event, now that the two worlds have met, the focus was on how to practically move forward through on alleviating homelessness to help people and the watershed.

Dr. Cheryl-Marie Hansberger, from the Mayor’s office in the City of Riverside, kicked off the first panel.

The first panel discussed the value of partnerships in the work of alleviating homelessness, and managing water. Dr. Cheryl-Marie Hansberger, Chief of Staff for Riverside Mayor Rusty Bailey, spoke first about the city’s Love Your Neighbor Initiative that recruits the help of faith-based leaders to help support and shelter “neighbors without homes.” When the city began the effort, they were overwhelmed by positive response by members of faith based organizations in Riverside and from smaller cities adjacent to or nearby Riverside. Based on this response from the community, the City of Riverside realized the program should be expanded to be regional in its approach and impact. Over time the strong community engagement provided important voices that led to new policy, countering the all-to-frequent sense of “not-in-my-backyard”. Dr. Hansberger shared that their most important lesson learned as they undertook this initiative was the need to diversify the resources, both people and money, to tackle homelessness. Public government funding is a critical piece, but often has restrictions on how it gets spent. Having outside grants, other cities, and civil-society partners has been an important answer to limited and restricted resources. Dr. Hansberger concluded with, “[the] focus on partnerships has been life-changing for us.”

Mike Carmon, of the nonprofit OC United, on the first panel.

Mike Carman spoke next about the Jobs for Life Program at the Fullerton faith-based non-profit, OC United, which focuses on supporting vulnerable community members. Jobs for Life is an 8-week training program that supports character development, social and work skills, all through a focus on honesty, courage and loyalty. Each student is assigned a mentor who will be with them for one year. OC United has developed partnerships with businesses who agree to provide interviews to graduate of the program for entry-level job positions. Carman talked about the successes of the program in helping people as young as 23 and as old as 73 find careers and head down the path towards securing permanent housing.

Thomas P. Evans, a SAWPA Commissioner, on the first panel.

Thomas P. Evans, SAWPA Commissioner and Director of the Western Municipal Water District, shared that the water management agencies spend hundreds of millions of dollars building projects and conducting programs that maintain water quality in the streams of the Santa Ana River Watershed, and that homelessness and those investments are not considered together. Providing safety for all people in the river, and assuring that water supplies are protected are significant missions for many agencies. He shared his new awareness that a common goal is shared by these water agency missions and those who are working specifically to support people experiencing homelessness. When water managers consider projects and expenditures, he believes there are ways to achieve water agency missions while also supporting Housing First principles, in partnership with cities and others who are working to alleviate homelessness.

During dialog following the presentations, the California legislative policy defined a Human Right to Water was discussed. On September 12, 2012, Governor Brown signed AB 685, making California the first state in the United States to legislatively recognize the human right to water. Under Water Code Section 106.3 California now acknowledges that ”every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.” Water is not only necessary for consumption, but is a linchpin for modern sanitation practices, a point which Dr. Antos highlighted to kick off the second panel which focused on the nexus between homelessness, water, and public health.

Three public health experts with experience supporting people experiencing homelessness made up the second panel.

The first speaker was Dr. Matthew Zahn, a pediatric infectious disease specialist. He affirmed that people who are experiencing homelessness suffer predominantly from ailments related to a lack of sanitation. Lack of access to clean bathrooms and water for washing in the homeless population is the driver to public health issues such as the Hepatitis A outbreaks which occurred in several southern California cities in the summer of 2017. Dr. Zahn shared that hepatitis A is spread fecal-orally and that if there is access to adequate sanitation facilities and proper practices are followed, there is no reason for a virus like Hepatitis A to spread. Zahn stated that “the sanitation situation that exists in Homeless populations in San Diego…is the driver for the issue here. It is the reason why we are having an outbreak we simply do not see in other populations in this country.” Dr. Zahn affirmed that we must make sure we are advocating for the right things and make sure there are sanitary facilities for all, not exclusive of individuals experiencing homelessness. He cautioned, however, that providing bathrooms or porta-potties that become overwhelmed by heavy use of large populations, or are not properly maintained, can spread illnesses. Zahn argued that adequate access to sanitation facilities is not just a public health concern but simply the humane thing to do. Dr. Zahn recognized that there are challenges of maintaining population health but that these challenges can be overcome by the right people being at the table. Dr. Zahn urged that by having various invested and knowledgeable stakeholders at the table, we can begin to collectively address the problem from a holistic and multi-faceted standpoint.

Mark Faucette from the LA County Department of Health Services (DHS), who joined the panel as a substitute for Leepi Shimkhada, spoke about the Housing for Health Division, which improves health outcomes for the vulnerable homeless populations. Housing for Health provides permanent supportive housing, recuperative care, and specialized primary care to individuals experiencing homelessness and who suffer from complex physical and behavioral health conditions. After giving a brief introduction to the program, Mr. Faucette highlighted that the success of Housing for Health lies in the emphasis that the program has placed on collaboration with other service providers in the community. During questions, Faucette referenced a recent study  released by RAND Corporation about the fiscal impact of housing those who are experiencing homelessness. The report found that in LA County a 60% decrease in cost to the government is achieved when moving someone who is homeless into permanent supportive housing with appropriate medical care .

Paul Leon, a public health nurse who is CEO and founder of Illumination Foundation spoke last on the panel. Illumination Foundation was founded in recognition that people experiencing homelessness who are discharged from the hospital frequently lack access to appropriate recuperative care. Mr. Leon commented that when individuals come through his program for recuperative care for infirmities like trauma, they often have underlying ailments that are attributable to lack of sanitation (e.g. hepatitis, tuberculosis). Mr. Leon advocated that when moving forward in addressing issues related to homelessness, we need permanent supportive housing with programs for substance abuse and mental health services. Mr. Leon closed his panel address imploring that “we need to address this problem. Many of us in the community have the answer but we have to react, and now.”

After a brief break for lunch the Symposium wrapped up with a keynote speech from Megan Brousseau, a lifelong Riverside resident and Associate Director of the Inland Empire Waterkeeper. Ms. Brousseau emphasized that there are direct links between environmental health, social service, and public health. Ms. Brousseau took the occasion to unveil a collaboration between Inland Empire Waterkeeper and the City of Riverside on the Clean Camp Coalition program. The Clean Camp Coalition will work with individuals who are experiencing homelessness to empower them and provide them with the resources they need to keep their camps clean (e.g. garbage bags and scheduled trash pick-up). Ms. Brousseau underscored her program’s mission, stating that “we believe at Waterkeeper that the truest way to get clean water is through stewardship, through giving the river to the people, allowing them to love it and have a vested interest in it.”

Fullerton Councilmember Bruce Whitaker, Executive Director & CEO of Orange County Coastkeeper Garry Brown, and Director of Western Municipal Water District Tom Evans assemble care packages of clean socks, toothbrushes, and toothpaste to be handed out to individuals in need.


¹ Both Homelessness & Water symposia are components of the Disadvantaged Communities Involvement Program conducted by SAWPA via a Proposition 1 Integrated Regional Water Management grant administered by the California Department of Water Resources.