It's hard to believe we’re into month five of the coronavirus shutdown. These final days of summer are blending together, and some days are easier than others.
To keep our spirits up, my family shares what we're grateful for each night. The kids surprise us, expressing gratitude for intangibles like love and family—in addition to the usual kid stuff, of course. One common theme has been their growing appreciation for the coziness of home. And that topic often turns into empathy for those living without a home during these tough times.
They're increasingly aware of unhoused encampments, which we encounter while walking the streets of Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco. They ask hard questions about why people have to live in such conditions. I have been asking those same questions myself.
Last year, the City of San Jose ripped down homeless encampments under the guise of a clean water lawsuit filed by Baykeeper. Our hard-fought legal settlement required the city to fix its pollution violations by reducing trash and sewage that runs from the city's storm drains into local creeks every time it rains. The violations we cited were unrelated to the homeless encampments.
It broke my heart to learn that the city was using Baykeeper's legal win as an excuse to displace and cause further trauma to unhoused people.
After Baykeeper and partner homeless advocacy organizations cried foul, San Jose stopped blaming our lawsuit for their actions, and the city committed to providing onsite toilets and hand-washing stations at homeless encampments. That's a good first step, and we all know it’s not enough.
We frequently get calls to our pollution hotline asking Baykeeper to do something about the homeless encampments along the Bay's shoreline and creek beds. In many cases, the callers ask, isn’t there something Baykeeper can do with the Clean Water Act that would force cleanup of the camps?
The short answer: it's complicated—just like the problem of homelessness itself.
The Clean Water Act is best at addressing the type of contamination that comes from distinct sources, known as "point source pollution,” where you can literally point to what's putting the pollution in the water. Think municipal sewage pipes, industrial wastewater outlets, and stormwater outfalls.
People are not considered pollution point sources, and neither are homeless encampments. It would be inhumane to try to hold the unhoused in criminal violation of the Clean Water Act, simply because they don't have basic services like toilets and trash pickup. Treating our unhoused neighbors like criminals only adds to their suffering. The situation demands an empathetic and comprehensive solution—one that's beyond the scope and intent of the Clean Water Act.
In a moment when our country is facing social injustice and environmental racism head on, I'm hopeful that our community leaders will address the root causes of homelessness: unemployment, poverty, housing, and the lack of essential services. In the meantime, I'll share with you that I'm grateful that Baykeeper's actions are not contributing to injustice against the unhoused, and that we are instead seeking solutions for a healthier, more just environment for all.
Photo by Chloe Aftel