By Andrea Klick, student reporter
Southern California is known for its nearly year-round warmth and sunshine. However, this apparent weather paradise can be punctuated by extreme heat waves that create dangerous conditions for many residents. While some retreat to air-conditioned buildings, people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles often don’t have a place to beat the heat and have little access to regular water.
This past summer, as COVID drove people indoors, Aria Cataño and two of her USC classmates attended a Black Lives Matter meeting where they were given produce bags. Since they couldn’t use all of the food, they used it to make burritos to give to people experiencing homelessness by City Hall. As they handed out food, many people said they needed water because of limited access to working public fountains in the area. Temperatures were rising and the urgency for clean, reliable water was rising, too.
Cataño, who graduated from USC Price with a bachelors in public policy and is currently pursuing a masters in urban planning, reached out to her social media followers and raised around $2,000 overnight to purchase water for people in the area. Surprised by the sudden influx of donations, she considered stopping the fundraiser at first, unsure of how to put the funds to good use, but her friends encouraged her to continue. The donations reached about $15,000 by the end of the week.
“We were not expecting that at all,” Cataño said. “I think it’s just the power of social media.”
Cataño, Catie Cummings and Kate Montanez then created Water Drop LA, an organization dedicated to supplying people experiencing homelessness with bottled water during weekly drops. Every week, volunteers gather to deliver 2,000 gallons of water to people with limited water accessibility in and around Skid Row.
Since July, Water Drop LA has raised over $400,000 to purchase gallons of water for people dealing with water insecurity each week.
“With those funds, we have enough money to sustain with our regular drops, which cost about $2,000 to $3,000 each weekend, for the next few years,” Cataño said. “Now it’s more about looking into long-term solutions to water inaccessibility and purchasing things that the community has been requesting, like tents and sleeping bags, especially as it gets colder and rainier out.”
Cataño and her co-founders also partner with other Southern California organizations to provide water to unhoused populations who rarely have access to clean and drinkable water. Without the work of many community organizations that have been working in Skid Row and with unhoused populations for decades, Cataño said Water Drop LA wouldn’t have been able to form and contribute to many ongoing efforts to support community members.
“I think another big part of it is a lot of our success is thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement; it made people think about their own activism and think about what kind of citizen they want to be. I think that spurred a lot of our donations and a lot of our turn out, and now that people’s attention is starting to turn away…I think a lot of people are unfortunately forgetting that Black Lives Matter is still extremely relevant. So I think some of the [momentum] that we were getting from that is also diminishing, as well.”
To build on its early success and advocate for the community it serves, the mutual aid group branched out to create several online petitions advocating for permanent drinking fountains in LA and bringing attention to the Echo Park and Macarthur Park areas where public water fountains had been turned off, denying water access for people experiencing homelessness in those areas.
Both petitions have received thousands of signatures, and the organization’s founders have also met with leaders at USC and in Los Angeles to advocate for improved conditions for people experiencing homelessness.
Even so, the path ahead isn’t straightforward. After talking more with community members over time, Cataño said she and her co-founders learned that permanent water fountains may not be the best solution to the water crisis facing. The permanent fountains that had been fought for and built, community members told them, weren’t publicized well enough and were stationed too far away from many people experiencing homelessness. And, since many people don’t own reusable water bottles, community members shared that they didn’t want to use their energy during a hot night, or risk their safety, in order to walk several blocks away for a single drink.
Water Drop LA is still deciding how to move forward with long-term solutions that are effective, but sustainable. The organization is still pursuing an eco-friendly solution like permanent drinking fountains, but understands the concerns of people on Skid Row who would prefer a pre-sealed water bottle that they know is clean and fresh.
“I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned has just been that as outsiders, it’s so easy to envision what we may think is a very intuitive and common sense solution,” she said, ”but if you’re not talking to people who live there every week and getting their input on it, then that’s where ‘saviorism’ comes in. We aren’t here to swoop in and impose our own fixes. We want to help where we’re needed, and take our cues from those who came before us, and from the community.”
At USC Price, Cataño said, she learned skills that helped her form Water Drop LA. Her courses shed light on many of the inequities that impact people experiencing homelessness, such as hostile architecture: the concept of creating structures like benches with metal divides that are difficult to sleep on or sprinklers that turn on at night to prevent people from sleeping in the parks.
Those classes, both in her undergraduate and masters courses at the School, have also helped her learn about potential pushback from lawmakers and current policies that hurt people experiencing homelessness in the area. Cataño said she’s gained insight in her studies about the issues with homeless shelters and affordable housing communities too, and has further expanded her knowledge to understand how some potential solutions haven’t actually helped community members.
“[My classes help] to understand why people are so trapped in this circumstance, too,” she said. “The city puts so few resources into this area, it’s really hard to get out once you’re there. Understanding things like that too I think are important to how you interact with people.”
As she continues pursuing her degree, Cataño looks forward to continuing her mission to help the Los Angeles unhoused community. “I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, and am incredibly grateful for the guidance of those who have dedicated their careers to advocacy and service. It’s an intersectional, all-hands-on-deck effort, and it’s an honor to contribute to this work.”