Walking past the tents pitched along the sidewalks of San Pedro St., Skid Row on Aug. 23, USC junior Moakeah Rivera noticed a few familiar faces.
“Free Water, free water,” she shouted, carrying two 1-gallon water bottles in each hand.
Rivera — dressed in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt to brave the scorching summer temperatures — volunteers to hand out bottled water to homeless residents every week in Downtown L.A.
“They all know me as the woman with an indigenous mask,” she said in a Zoom interview with Annenberg Media, pointing to the word “indigenous” printed on her black mask.
Los Angeles has one of the largest GDPs in the world. Yet tens of thousands of people who are unhoused across the county struggle to procure the most basic necessity: water. This situation has only been further exacerbated by closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic and rising temperatures from ongoing heatwaves. That prompted USC volunteers like Rivera and community members living near the campus to join a newly-formed initiative handing out clean drinking water to the people who are unhoused on Skid Row.
Bringing drinking water to Skid Row
Water Drop LA was founded in July by USC students Aria Catano, Catie Cummings and Kate Montanez. The grassroots organization conducts “water drops” every week, distributing over two thousand gallons of water with the help of over 50 other volunteers.
Every Sunday at 11 a.m., the team meets up in an empty parking lot at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, across from the UPC.
After registration and a quick briefing, volunteers load their cars with water and set out for their assigned spots. Over their 11 weeks of operations, Catano and Cummings mapped the streets thoroughly. The volunteers spread out to ensure that they can reach a larger number of people.
Standing outside his tent on Gladys St., pitched inches away from his neighbor, Rikki Ernestille is one of the many residents who has benefitted from the water drops.
“Either we have to buy it or wait for people to pass it out,” he said. Lack of access to parks and local businesses due to COVID-19 has made the task of acquiring drinking water even more challenging, even for long-time residents of Skid Row like Ernestille.
In previous years, LADWP has installed temporary water fountains across the city before heatwaves. COVID-19 concerns have further exacerbated the situation, the Water Drop founders explained.
The idea for Water Drop arose from a Black Lives Matter meeting that Catano and Montanez attended in early July. They returned home with some leftover produce and ended up making about 50 burritos to give away to people who are unhoused in Downtown L.A.
“What was more impactful than giving out those burritos was the fact that almost every person that we talked to also asked us for water,” said Cummings said in an interview with Annenberg Media. “That request got us thinking about how hard it might be to access water, especially clean drinking water, if you’re a person experiencing homelessness here in L.A.”
Catano and Cummings started raising funds on their personal social media pages, intending to bring back a few cases of water to the Skid Row residents. Donations started pouring in, exceeding their expectations. On their first water drop, they distributed 800 gallons of water and 2,500 granola bars.
“We ran out of water super fast. I think that’s what shocked us the most,” said Goldie Roth, a volunteer involved with the initiative since the beginning. “It’s insane how fast it was gone.”
Motivated by their success, the group turned what was supposed to be a one-time event into a weekly action.
Getting traction after going viral
On Aug. 13, an Instagram infographic from Water Drop about the ongoing heatwave went viral, with celebrities like Jameela Jamil and Alana Hadid resharing Water Drop to their pages.
That week alone, Water Drop received over $100,000 in donations.
Water Drop also conducted a donation drive within the USC community. The goal was to collect non-perishable food, bedding, clothing and other items to distribute to the Skid Row residents during their weekly drops. Over time, people also donated personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves which supplemented the weekly water drops.
Rivera beamed as she spoke about her encounter with a woman wearing a pair of shorts she had given away on a previous trip.
“It was really nice to see that they actually use them,” Rivera said.
On their drops, the team takes stock of other personal necessities Skid Row residents are missing, bringing back whatever possible on the following Sunday.
“I might forget to do my [school] assignments, but not these items,” Rivera said.
Within a short time, the Water Drop team built a sophisticated operation banking on friends and fellow Trojans' help.
Changing the public’s perception
Cummings stressed that Water Drop’s work is not “just transactional.” Volunteers are encouraged to interact with the residents and build positive relationships. Avery Dukes, the volunteer drop coordinator, added that they try to send people back to the same streets for that reason.
“That’s actually been one of my favorite parts of doing this is being able to go back to the same people,” said Catano. “We know people by [their] names.”
Most volunteers spoke fondly about their past visits.
“She convinced me to dance while I was handing out water,” Dukes said as she fondly recalled her first meeting with Donna, a Skid Row resident. As their friendship bloomed, Dukes noted that Donna helped her with water distribution a few weeks later.
“I think we got to talk to the people living on Skid Row more than I expected us to,” said Emily Drysdale, a sophomore at USC, after her first time volunteering with the organization with her three roommates. “I mean, I think what I expected was just to be dropping off water to tents, asking them if they want water and moving on but, I think we ended up having a 45-minute conversation with a couple of residents there.”
They even recall dancing and singing with an aspiring rapper while on a drop.
While most volunteers attest to having had positive experiences, some occasionally encounter a mildly aggressive resident or an inappropriate catcall. The leadership team encourages disengagement in these situations. They are also a text or phone call away, ready to act if required.
“It’s definitely not a place I would want to go to by myself, but that’s true for a lot of places,” said Alexandra Miller, one of Drysdale’s three housemates, who accompanied her. “Going with my roommates, I felt really safe; all the residents were very friendly. We didn’t feel unsafe at all.”
“Everyone in L.A. knows what Skid Row is like… where it is. The first time that I went, I didn’t know what to really expect,” said Roth. “The people are amazing. I met some of the coolest people in the first week.”
Like many other volunteers, Water Drop LA has been instrumental in changing Roth’s perceptions of Skid Row and interactions with the residents.
Dukes said that Water Drop is unlike any of her previous experiences with NGOs. “This is direct hands-on work. We are going to people... The need that we are seeing is with the people, and we are giving to the people.”
Cummings is taking a gap semester to dedicate her time to building the non-profit even more.
In the future, the Water Drop founder Cummings said, they hope to create Water Drop communities within various localities of Los Angeles.