At the corner of 5th and Towne in Skid Row, an illegally modified fire hydrant sprays a fine horizontal mist of water. A well-placed wrench provides the block’s homeless residents a brief respite from the heat on a day when the high in downtown Los Angeles will rise to over 90 degrees. Andre Dasean Dillingham, who lives down the block, collects water in a pail, using it to cool off when the sun on his back becomes overbearing.
“We have everything we need here,” says Dillingham, a longtime resident of Skid Row who collects water from the hydrant for light bathing and drinking. But according to city officials quoted in a recent NBC Los Angeles story, the Skid Row residents’ illegal use of fire hydrants pose a major safety hazard for the community.
In July, the NBC4 investigative team reported on the issue, drawing attention to the fire risks posed by potentially compromised fire hydrants. Despite promises from the mayor to keep city fire hydrants in working order, homeless people on Skid Row continue to “hijack” hydrants for bathing and drinking purposes.
Even today, several fire hydrants in the Skid Row area appear to still have been modified to access clean water. Some have spigots installed on top, whereas others have a simple wrench. Although several nonprofits provide drinking water and mobile showers in the area, the continued illegal use of fire hydrants underscores the scope of today’s homelessness epidemic.
“The challenge for the people who are living on the streets is that a lot of basic services are tied to particular places, and so they might be living in a location that doesn’t have easy access to electricity, safe drinking water and other basic hygiene services,” says Gary Painter, professor at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy and director of the Homelessness Policy Research Institute.
“They have to go somewhere else to find those services, and sometimes that journey can be substantial and prevents them from accessing those services,” he adds. Even within the boundaries of Skid Row, where nonprofit and city workers can be seen handing out food and walking around with clipboards, finding enough water to drink and stay clean can still be a challenge.
When Annenberg Media reached out to Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office for comment, press secretary Alex Comisar also added that some, but not all, modified fire hydrants are actually legally sanctioned additions in the form of drinking fountains. One can be found less than half a block from the illegally modified hydrant at 5th and Towne, noticeably different from the simple wrench operation. In lieu of a horizontal spray, a standalone drinking fountain rigged up to the yellow hydrant provides a drinkable stream of water.
“I do want to distinguish between tapping into the fire hydrants and disabling them. Firefighters can still gain access to the few we’ve put in there,” Comisar stated, offering that the mayor’s office has plans to add six water fountains in the coming months. In the summer, temporary drinking fountains are also added to combat health risks posed by dangerously high temperatures.
“At the end of the day, people need clean water to drink,” he said.
What the NBC4 report failed to take into account in its law-and-order reporting on the “hijacking” of fire hydrants is that the illegal modification becomes necessary informal public health infrastructure when city and nonprofit services fail to provide ample resources for homeless people to maintain personal hygiene.
Half a mile from Dillingham’s fire hydrant, the Skid Row Community ReFresh Spot provides showers, drinking water, laundry and charging services in a nearby parking lot. Nicole Herman, the community ambassador lead in charge of its front desk, said they serve 2200 residents a day around the clock.
Before the ReFresh Spot was built approximately two years ago, access to restrooms and showers was even more difficult, Herman said. “These streets, as you can tell, smell a lot better. It’s a very big difference.”