Water is a necessity for survival for all living beings, but all across the world is it is inaccessible or contaminated for many populations. Even within our own city of Chicago, this is an issue. Homes within Chicago, especially in the poorest zip codes, have trouble accessing safe drinking water due to housing instability, affordability, and toxic lead in the pipes and in tap water. We’ve decided to dive deeper into water accessibility in our community during this pandemic. 

 

Behind the Barrier: Access to Water

Though water is a necessity, 15% of the people we serve do not have regular access to clean drinking water. Before COVID-19, residents could come to the Peace House on a daily basis to access filtered water we purchased monthly in water jugs; now we’re delivering clean water to households so to meet this basic need for survival. 

During COVID-19, clean drinking water has become an even more precious resource, and unfortunately, even more scarce. And at the same time, the CDC recommends vigorously washing hands and sanitizing regularly in order to stay safe. These times of crisis teach us a fundamental truth: Water is not only a human right, but an essential means for ensuring public safety and stopping the global spread of COVID-19. 

The barriers to water manifest in many ways, such as: 

  • Water access: More than just access to a tap, water access means reliable, continuous access to indoor plumbing (sink, shower, and toilet), running water, and wastewater services (Close the Water Gap).  
  • Water affordability: Affordable water means that paying for water does not limit the ability to pay for other essential items, in and outside of the home: food, medicine, electricity, or housing (Close the Water Gap). Unfortunately, money stands in the way of this basic human right for many low-income households in Chicago: a study by American Public Media found that in Chicago, the cost of water for the average family of four tripled between 2007 and 2018, from $178 to $576 a year (WBEZ 2020). 
  • Water quality: The quality of water should meet or exceed the standards set by the WHO and EPA. The water we drink should not be a danger to public health. Across the city of Chicago, there is toxic lead in the tap water. In 2018, The Tribune reported that 3 of every 10 homes had toxic levels of lead found in the water. In the US, 44 million people are served by water systems that recently had health-based Safe Drinking Water Act violations (Close the Water Gap)
  • Water discrimination: Within all of these barriers, none of them should be determined or affected by race, ethnicity, citizenship status, or any other qualities that diversify our human experience. In Chicago now, though Black people only make up 12.6 percent of the population, they are 24.2 percent of the people who live close to a brownfield site, properties that are potentially hazardous or contaminated, according to the EPA. Nationwide, race is the single strongest predictor of whether you have access to a tap or a toilet in your home” (New York Times 2020). As an ACLU representative on water access during a pandemic stated, “There’s no public emergency unless it expands beyond the confines of communities of color” (Mother Jones  2020). 

As we’ve seen with other barriers, the choices a family must make to access their basic needs are choices no human being, and certainly no Chicagoan, should be forced to make. 

 

What does this look like for individuals? 

A report by the US Water Alliance found that 553,000 homeless people in the United States are at higher risk to water inaccessibility, lacking equitable water and sanitation access. Now, shelter-in-place orders mean many can’t rely on public spaces and institutions to meet this basic need. For our community, the issue of homelessness is acute: 16% of the people we serve say they don’t sleep in a bed at night. Homelessness can be deadly anytime, but especially when water access depends on being able to enter public spaces in the middle of a pandemic. 

Having a home isn’t a guarantee of water access, either. With an unemployment rate of 73% before COVID-19, the people we work with don’t stand much of a chance to afford the water they need, even if they do have a home. Those who have been unable to pay their water bills have had their water shut down in the past: between January 2007 and April 2019, the city issued more than 150,000 water shutoff notices due to unpaid or delinquent bills (WBEZ 2019). “Nearly 40% of shut-offs were concentrated in just five of the city’s poorest ZIP codes on the South and West sides.” (Illinois Environmental Council). Though Governor Pritzker has stopped all shutdowns of water during the pandemic, he hasn’t reinstated those who lost their water before. A family that couldn’t afford water in the past continues to live without it during this crisis. 

We all know the necessity of water for human life, but the full impact in all areas of our life is often overlooked. Being without clean, affordable, and high-quality water hinders all aspects of our life and ability to stay safe during this virus:

  • Washing your hands
  • Cleaning and sanitizing your home
  • Cooking and maintaining proper nutrition
  • Flushing your toilet
  • Caring for your baby by preparing baby formula
  • Showering and maintaining personal hygiene
  • Keeping your fluid consumption high if you get sick 

For those who do have reliable tap water, there is a different risk: consuming chemicals that are linked to cancer and other health issues. Ten contaminants were detected above the EPA’s own recommended health guidelines in Chicago, one of them being chloroform. During a pandemic, where water is more necessary than ever before, having unsafe water can exacerbate an already detrimental situation. 

 

What does this look like for the public? 

Staying clean during a pandemic is a must, and the CDC guidelines for washing your hands for 20 seconds go out the window when you don’t have the water to do it. We cannot ignore the role of safe drinking water in this crisis. “These conditions are making the virus more powerful than it should be, endangering all of us” (NYT 2020). 

When entire families and communities are shut out from clean, reliable water, it’s not only CDC safety guidelines that we sacrifice; we are also sacrificing human dignity and precious human life. Unhealthy environments contribute to the high amount of Black deaths due to Covid-19 across the country, where “counties with higher black populations account for more than half of all Covid-19 cases and almost 60% of deaths” (CNN 2020). Our community is 98% black and disproportionately suffers from the virus: Englewood has seen the most coronavirus deaths and is the second poorest neighborhood in Chicago, with a median income of $24,000 (CBS 2020). 

This pandemic is tragic and so much of this reality feels out of our control. But some things are completely preventable; no family should be without water, and we should not, as a public, tolerate living in a country where our neighbors are being denied their basic human rights. 

 

What are people’s options?

For lack of clean water due to homelessness…

  • Go to a public place, such as a shelter: For those who are homeless, the only way to access water may be a shelter. With the need for social distance measures, this is a risky option due to “crowded conditions, conducive to the spread of COVID-19.” (Human Rights Watch 2020)
  • Steal from a store or home: Though stealing would be the most cost-efficient option, it is high risk and forces people into crime, potentially incarceration. Incarceration is rarely a safe option, but during a pandemic, the risk for contraction of the virus is even higher. 
  • Get a job:  During this pandemic, unemployment rates have skyrocketed, at 4.4% of the US, and we are experiencing a global recession. Many people across the country are having a hard time finding work. The jobs that are most available are often those of low-wage essential workers, which presents its own set of challenges, as explored in our last blog post

For lack of clean water due to affordability…

  • Shutoff moratoriums: As discussed by the Illinois Environmental Council, Gov. Pritzker’s moratorium on water shutoffs during the pandemic does not require reconnection of already shut off water: “Households whose water was shut off before the moratorium was announced may still be dry today, months later.” The shutoff moratorium is a good option if you could afford water before the crisis, but for our community, that’s a big if.  

For lack of clean water due to toxicity…

  • Boil tap water: Although boiling water takes care of unsafe bacteria, “with lead…that only concentrates the amount in the water” (Vox 2020). If tap water is unsafe, this isn’t a true option; this is a common misconception that puts people in greater danger.  
  • Buy bottled water from a store: People who are unable to access tap water or are aware of the chemicals and do not want to consume them, are buying plastic water bottles — if they can afford it. Though Governor Pritzker has banned water tax throughout Illinois, this has not been applied equitably in the city.  Our neighbors have informed us that those who are still able to shop in Englewood stores are still being taxed for water, despite the governor’s ban on these costs. Beyond becoming an added cost for an already low-income household, this contributes to the pollution and plastic we see in our streets.  

 

What is I Grow Chicago doing? 

Providing water

We are committed to meeting our community’s basic needs for water, no matter what. Since the Peace House provided one of the only places for clean drinking water for many of our residents before the crisis, we have switched to delivering water to families in need. We have acquired 100 large refillable plastic jugs, which we fill and refill with filtered water upon request. Since we started our COVID-19 crisis response, we have provided 37 households, an estimated 185 people, with clean drinking water. 

Providing safety supplies

Many people we serve are homeless, sleeping in abandoned buildings, couchsurfing, or staying in shelters. In these cases, we need to make sure people have portable safety equipment that doesn’t require continuous access to running water. We have provided 374 8 oz bottles of hand sanitizer and 10,162 medical gloves to help increase safety for those who can’t always access a sink and water to wash their hands. 

Fighting for justice

We see it as our duty to share the reality we witness every day and the lessons we’ve learned in this work. These lessons apply to our country as a whole, not just Englewood. Although our work is hyper-local, Englewood is not unique in this crisis; marginalized, disinvested, and targeted communities across the country are suffering. These statistics aren’t true because of individual failings, a lack of potential or perseverance. These statistics aren’t true because skin color makes some inherently more susceptible to this virus than others. These disproportionate deaths are not biology; they are the consequences of unjust policies, inequitable resources, and systemic racism. There’s no way around it. 

 

How you can help

Continue to support our efforts by donating to our No Life is Expendable campaign, where every donation no matter the size will be matched by $100 until May 20! This campaign is rooted in our values: When we all give what we can, we create a more loving and sustainable world. All we ask is that you share what you can, whether it’s $15, $150, or $1,500, or a message to your friends to contribute. 

Take a stand: Contact your representative and demand the human rights we’ve all been promised. Although we’re happy to do whatever it takes to support our community through this pandemic, we know that just because this is the way things are doesn’t mean this is how they should be. We should not have to rely on small nonprofits to make sure people are provided the human right of clean drinking water. 

Keep learning: Educate yourself on this issue and educate others. Share this article and continue to read and explore more. Here are a few resources we recommend as starting points:

Our city is in danger, but not all of us will feel the effects at the same rates. Water is a human right; if we deny it, what does that say about our humanity? How many instances of public crisis must occur until we start treating people with the rights we’ve promised them?