Water for All

A report by the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco

Download a PDF of the report here.

Table of Contents

Executive Summary


Street Survey

  • Survey Design
  • Methodology
  • Analysis: Water Accessibility
  • Analysis: Water Usage
  • Analysis: Water Storage


  • Increase Public Water Points
  • Increase Public Sanitation & Hygiene Facilities
  • San Francisco Acknowledge Water and Sanitation as a Human Right



  • Appendix 1: International Minimum Standards for Water Access
  • References

Executive Summary

Throughout the past year, one theme has continually been touched upon in the Coalition on Homelessness’ street outreach: unhoused San Franciscans are in desperate need of clean water, and there aren’t enough places to get it. This is a problem that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, as there has long been a shortage of restrooms, showers, and sources of potable water accessible to unhoused people. The pandemic has intensified the situation, taking from a severe human rights crisis into a deadly one. On the one hand, access to hygiene and sanitation access has become even more essential for unhoused people to protect themselves from a devastating virus. On the other hand, the restrictions imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19 greatly limit access to several of the sources of water that were previously available to the public. 

In response to the frequency with which the issue of water access was being mentioned in outreach, the Coalition’s Human Rights Workgroup began focusing more directly on this topic. This led to the creation and administration of the survey contained in this report. This survey was informed by international standards of water and sanitation access established by entities such as the United Nations. 

The results of the survey highlight the extent to which water access is a problem in San Francisco, with 68% of respondents facing barriers to accessing their daily water needs. A majority of respondents (60%), don’t have access to even 15 liters of water per day, which is the lowest international minimum standard for water access. 74% accessed less than 50 liters of water per day, which is the urban minimum standard. These barriers greatly diminish the water consumption of respondents, with only 18% using more than 9 liters daily, compared to the over 155 liters consumed by the average San Franciscan, and the 310 liters consumed by the average Californian. The survey results also partially illuminate who is most impacted by the lack of access. Reflecting the disproportionate impacts of homelessness in San Francisco, survey respondents were more often Black, elderly, and disabled. 

Based on both the results of the survey and continued outreach with unhoused San Franciscans, the Human Rights Workgroup has also included in this report a list of recommendations to address this issue in the short, medium, and long term. Because homelessness is the primary barrier to water access in San Francisco, the most effective long term solution to this crisis is to ensure stable and permanent housing for all of San Francisco’s residents with adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities. In the medium and short terms, the city must expand its commitment to investing in the water infrastructure necessary to provide accessible, potable drinking water for all of its residents.  The city has made efforts in doing so, implementing 12 new water sources, but they must be greatly expanded upon in order to approach an adequate standard of water access for unhoused San Franciscans. The Human Rights Workgroup recommends this to begin immediately, with an additional three permanent water stations in the Tenderloin. Implementation of this and all future water infrastructure should be shaped by input from directly impacted people. This is modeled in the survey, where respondents were asked several questions regarding where and how the city should invest in water resources. Determining solutions based on this type of input will ensure that water access points will be located where they are needed most, with the features that are most helpful to those that are currently in need of increased water access. 


Water as a Human Right

In 2010, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council recognized the access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right and as part of international law (Human Rights, 2021). This mandate requires that “drinking water and water for personal and domestic usage as well as sanitation and hygiene facilities are available, accessible, safe, acceptable, and affordable for all without discrimination” (About the human rights to water and sanitation, n.d.).  The ideal of equal access to water being a global human right is also reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established by the UN and agreed to by the United States in 2015, which established “available and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” as it’s sixth goal (The 17 Goals, n.d.).

In 2012, California became the first state in the United States (U.S.) to legislatively recognize the human right to water when Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. signed Assembly Bill (AB) 685. California’s current Water Code (Section 106.3) clearly states that California recognizes that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.” The human right to water extends to all Californians, including disadvantaged individuals regardless of their housing status (Human Right to Water, 2021).

In wealthy countries such as the United States (U.S.), there exist more than enough resources to provide water and sanitation services for all residents. Even so, these resources have not been made equally available, and marginalized communities have historically been denied the right of water access in various ways. This is especially true for the millions of unhoused people in the U.S. who, as acknowledged by UN Special Rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque after her 2011 mission to the U.S., face several barriers to accessing water and sanitation services. (de Albuquerque, 2011, p. 13-15)

The standards for what qualifies as adequate access to water and sanitation varies greatly based on context and availability (“Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene Promotion,” 2018). As a baseline, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has established a set of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) standards for establishing WASH access amongst refugees (UNHCR WASH Manual: Programme Guidance, 2020, pp. 53–54). The UNHCR’s WASH standards mandate that every individual has access to a minimum of 20 liters of safe water per day. In order to achieve this, the guidelines also mandate that no more than 100 people share one working water faucet, and that no more than 20 people share one toilet or shower. The international Sphere handbook on WASH access uses a slightly lower standard of 15 liters of water per day (“Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene Promotion,” 2018). However, the international Sphere community, which sets standards for humanitarian action and promotes quality and accountability, clarifies that this standard is only applicable to emergency situations, and cannot be applied to prolonged periods of time. A much higher standard of 50 liters per person is used by Sphere in “an urban middle income context.” This urban standard is seemingly much more applicable to San Francisco, although it still falls far below the 155 liters (41 gallons) of water consumed by the average San Franciscan (The Economic Value of Water in United States’ Metropolitan Statistical Areas, 2017).

The United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, must ensure that everyone, without discrimination, has physical and economic access, in all spheres of life, to sanitation which is safe, hygienic, secure, socially and culturally acceptable, and which provides privacy and ensures dignity. An immediate, interim solution is to ensure access to restrooms facilities in public places, including during the night. The long-term solution to homelessness must be to ensure adequate housing.”

Catarina de Albuquerque
United Nations Special Rapporteur on Water and Sanitation

Water Access in San Francisco

By several accounts, the thousands of unhoused residents in San Francisco have barriers to accessing water and sanitation that cause their water consumption to fall far below that of the average San Franciscan and below the aforementioned international standards. For example, the city’s 2020 Tenderloin Neighborhood Safety Assessment and Plan for COVID-19 reported inadequate access to drinking water and restroom facilities, or showers on almost every block surveyed (Health Streets Operations Center, 2020). Similar findings were reported in the Mission Neighborhood Plan, whose “recommended interventions” included increasing access to potable water, restrooms, and showers. These barriers, primarily caused by a historical lack of access to affordable housing, have been exacerbated by San Francisco’s failure to provide reliable and consistent public access points for drinking water, showers, and restrooms. 

As reported in several articles in the San Francisco Public Press, this failure can be partly attributed to mismanagement of the water resources currently available (Howey, 2020a, Howey, 2020b). However, much of the problem can be explained by lack of resources altogether. According to the Public Utilities Commission’s count, there are currently 55 public sources of drinking water in San Francisco (Drink Tap Water, n.d.). According to the most recent Point in Time count, there are over 8,000 people living without housing in San Francisco, a number that has likely increased significantly since 2019 (Applied Survey Research, 2019). Even using this likely underestimation, by the city’s own count there is less than 1 water source for every 145 unhoused residents, well under the UNHCR WASH standard of 1 source per 100 people. Compounding this severe deficiency are the fact that many of the current available water sources are located in areas of high traffic for tourists (for example, Golden Gate Park is home to eight alone), rather than where there are high concentrations of people living on the street or in congregate shelters. Additionally, water sources are often located in parks, which are not always accessible to unhoused people 24 hours a day. When considered together, these factors paint the picture of thousands of people forced to live for a prolonged period of time with very limited access to the UN recognized human right of water, far below even the minimum standard set by the UN for refugees under emergency circumstances. 

[I have] no access to water. I have to make a commute to go get water. I go to Golden Gate Street. I have to figure out how to carry it around. How do you carry it around with disabilities? Water fountains in the Tenderloin are temporary. We need global tap type design in water fountains.

Unhoused survey respondent in the Mission district

Human Cost of Water Access

For unhoused San Franciscans, the human rights violation of being denied access to water and sanitation services intersects with myriad other systemic abuses faced daily, such as criminalization, racism, and ableism. As UN Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha implied in her 2018 visit to the Bay Area, these intersections are at least partially intentional, with the denial of water being an integral part of the city’s response to street homelessness (Brinklow, 2018).

This report is a collection and presentation of the testimonies of unhoused San Franciscans and their experiences with accessing water, with the intent of highlighting how severe the lack of water is for people living on the streets in San Francisco. In doing so, it also shows by whom the impact of this human rights abuse is felt most strongly, illustrating the intersections of water access with disability justice and racial equity. Perhaps most importantly, these testimonies provide a roadmap for how the city can immediately begin to address the issue; including what types of resources are needed and where they are needed most. These solutions should be seen as a short-term response to an urgent public health crisis and abuse of human rights faced by thousands of San Francisco’s most vulnerable residents. The long-term solution to this and the many other crises caused by homelessness, in the words of Catarina de Albuquerque, “must be to ensure adequate housing.” 

Attempting to discourage residents from remaining in informal settlements or encampments by denying access to water, sanitation, health services, and other basic necessities, as has been witnessed by the Special Rapporteur in San Francisco and Oakland, constitutes cruel and inhuman treatment and is a violation of multiple human rights, including the rights to life, housing, health, and water and sanitation.

Leilani Farha
United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing

Street Survey

Survey Design

The Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco’s Human Rights Workgroup collaborated in creating a WASH assessment designed to catalogue the lived experience of unhoused San Franciscans and identify their solutions to the current crisis. The survey focused on water accessibility (barriers and current access), water usage, and water storage providing the opportunity for respondents to articulate their daily attempts to access water in San Francisco. The WASH Assessment was based on international minimum water standards established by Sphere, UNHCR, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization (Appendix 1).

Survey Questions

Survey Questions

  1. Do you have any barriers to accessing your water needs? If ‘Yes’, what are those barriers?
  2. Do you have access to 15 liters of safe water per day? If Yes, do you have access to 50 liters of safe water per day? 
  3. Do you have access to water within a 30 min round trip travel and wait time? If Yes, do you travel more than 250 meters to get access to water? (approx. 2 city blocks or a 2-4min walk)
  4. What do you use water for on a typical day? Check all that apply: Drinking, Washing, Showering, Water for pets, Water for plants, Other
  5. How much water in gallons or liters do you use on a typical day? 
  6. Where do you currently access water? List all sources that you utilize. (Be as specific as possible, water fountain, manifold, theft. Include locations, street names, corner stores, etc.) If you purchase water, on average how much money do you spend in a day on water?
  7. Do you store water when you access it? If Yes, what kind of water storage container do you use?
  8. How much water in gallons or liters would you ideally use in a typical day if you had improved water access?
  9. Where would you like to see new water access points in the Tenderloin? (Give specific street names, landmarks, etc.)
  10. What features would you like to see in a new water access point? (i.e. water fountains, water bottle filling stations, pet fountain, etc.)
  11. What kind of reusable water storage container would you prefer to have?


To conduct the survey, unhoused and precariously housed San Franciscans were reached through direct street outreach in our geographic focus area of the Tenderloin and other locations. A total of 73 surveys were conducted during the winter months of 2020/21. The survey responses were collected on a Google survey form. 

Age of Survey Respondents

The age range of the 73 people surveyed was age 24 to 70.

11% (8) respondents were age 24-33, 18% (13) were age 34-43, 20% (15) were age 44-53, 44% (29) were age 54-63, and 11% (8) were age 64-73

Ethnicity of Survey Respondents

The ethnic breakdown of the 73 people surveyed.

Hispanic – 4.1%, Latinx – 5.5%, Prefer not to say – 23.3%, Non-Hispanic/Latinx – 67.1%

Survey Respondents with Disabilities

The breakdown of respondents who identified with a disability/ies.

Yes – 67% (49), No – 32% (23, Decline to state – 1% (1)

Gender of Survey Respondents

The current gender demographics of the 73 people surveyed.

Male – 70% (51), Female – 26% (19), Trans – 3% (2), Prefer not to say 1% (1)

Race of Survey Respondents

The racial demographics of the 73 people surveyed.

Asian – 1% (1), Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander – 1% (1), American Indian or Alaskan Native – 7% (5), Mixed Race – 8% (6), Black or African American – 32% (23), White – 51% (37)

Survey Respondents’ Living Situation

The current living situation of 63 out of the 73 people surveyed. 10 respondents did not share information. 

Streets/Tents – 58% (42), SRO/SIP Hotels – 20% (15), Unknown – 14% (10), Safe Sleeping Sites – 4% (3), RV/Vehicle – 3% (2), Housed – 1% (1)

Analysis: Water Accessibility

Barriers to Water Access

Do you have any barriers to accessing your water needs? If Yes, what are those barriers?

73 total responses; 50 affirmative responses

Overwhelmingly, survey respondents reported confronting barriers to accessing their basic water needs. Of the 68% of respondents who shared that everyday they face barriers and struggle to meet their basic water needs, the underlying issue ultimately is homelessness. San Francisco fails to guarantee housing for the over 8,000 unhoused and many of the over 30,000 living in Single Room Occupancies (SROs) lack robust and consistent water access, sanitation, and hygiene. 

For individuals living on the street, respondents’ top responses included “limited outlets & travel/distance to outlets” (49), “no money” (6), and “the policing of water” (8) as the major barriers to water access for street-based homeless. 

With the dearth of water outlets and current infrastructural emphasis on water bottle refilling stations instead of universal water fountains (fountains that feature three water spouts, a pet bowl, and an open spout for jugs and other uses), survey respondents highlighted that San Francisco fails to provide adequate water outlets for unhoused San Franciscans and the broader community. Many of the current public water outlets are reserved to parks (with limited hours availability) and/or locations in the western part of the city. Some survey respondents shared that while they reside on Tenderloin streets, they have attempted to travel to one of the eight public water outlets in Golden Gate Park to access water. Such a journey could be 2-5 miles long and take over an hour by foot. 


Thank you to the people and organizations who have contributed to this report.

Human Rights Work Group, Coalition on Homelessness 

Armando Garcia

Brian Edwards

Brittany Shea

Carlos Wadkins

Chelsea Crumpler

Christin Evans

Flo Kelly

Ian James

Jennifer Friedenbach

John Stiefel

Keegan Medrano

Kelley Cutler

Kristin Marshall

Larry Ackerman

Lisa Maria Alatorre

Martha Bridegam

Neha Verma

Olivia Glowacki

Quiver Watts

Stella Kunkat

TJ Johnston

Yan Chen

Our unhoused neighbors who took part in the survey and shared their experiences

Our collaborators, Faithful Fools and YWAM San Francisco