Dehydration can kill a person faster than hunger — much faster. Though the human body can survive weeks without food, the average person will begin to show signs of serious dehydration after just two days. Three days without water is typically considered fatal.
In spite of this common knowledge, lawmakers don’t treat access to potable water like a human right.
“It’s a basic need,” explains Richard McAdams, who leads Union Gospel Mission’s (UGM) Search and Rescue team in delivering water, food and offers of service to folks sleeping outside every night. “People on the streets deserve those basic needs, just like everyone else. Places that deprive them of water ... they’re hindering them.”
Water is essential to most of the core functions of the human body, from organ function to cell regeneration. Lack of it can increase blood pressure and cholesterol, causing a kind of systemic breakdown. During the hot, sweaty days of a late Seattle summer, it’s especially difficult to retain healthy levels of hydration; an adult with no place to escape the heat can expect to sweat more than a liter per hour, meaning fluids need to be replaced consistently.
Unfortunately, access to water can be difficult if you don’t live somewhere with indoor plumbing. Businesses frequently refuse requests to fill a bottle or provide a free cup to non-customers. Public spots, like drinking fountains, can be few and far between. In the winter, they’re often shut off entirely.
Purchasing water may be an option for some folks — it’s covered by food stamps — but that requires a difficult choice for a hungry person who needs calories to get through the day, and, anyway, food stamps run out.
Dehydration is part of a cycle that impacts many unsheltered people. For folks who are living with addiction, water often takes a backseat — but being dehydrated can exacerbate the side effects.
“We see a lot of people who are, unfortunately, stuck in their addiction to drugs and alcohol. And that depletes your electrolytes and keeps you dehydrated,” says McAdams, who himself spent years living outside and with addiction. “When you’re on drugs or alcohol, the last thing you think about is staying hydrated.”
Several organizations — including Union Gospel — actively work to put water in the hands of folks living outside. McAdams personally delivers bottles in the UGM delivery van almost every night, many of the food banks in town provide a water bottle or two with meals, and several encampments keep water on-hand, though running water was not an initial stipulation for city-sanctioned encampments.
Still, the barrier to access is apparent. Despite a great deal of conversation about “ending homelessness,” the city of Seattle makes little effort to meet this basic need. Like so many other necessities that sheltered folks take for granted, access to water has slipped through the cracks.