Thousands lack access to running water in metro Phoenix

Tim Wiedman caught COVID-19 last December. A few days later, he developed bronchitis. A double whammy, he called it. 

The illnesses sapped his energy so much that, for six weeks, he could barely get off the living room couch in the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his mom in Mesa. 

In late January, when Wiedman finally felt strong enough to stand for a shower, a third whammy hit him: The tap was dry. Mesa had shut off his water after the landlord failed to pay the water bill for two months.   

“I’m more the ‘life’s going to happen, so wait for the other shoe to drop at any moment. Be prepared as best as one can be,’” said Wiedman, who’s 31. “But for this, it caught us off guard and we couldn’t be prepared. … It was just one long stretch of being bedridden, and then this.” 

Frequently thought of as a rural problem, the lack of running water is an often-hidden issue for large numbers of people in urban and suburban areas of metro Phoenix.  

There isn’t comprehensive data about how many people go without water at any given time, but figures from different reports suggest the number is at least in the tens of thousands.  

Water drips from a leaky faucet at Pam Wiedman's home in Mesa.

Public water utilities in the metro Phoenix disconnected water service to 13,002 households from January through May for periods of time ranging from a few hours to days or longer.  

One report from Kings College London estimated that more than 6,000 households in metro Phoenix live without complete plumbing, meaning they were missing hot and cold running water, indoor shower or bathtub, flushing toilet or some combination of them.   

And there are over 9,000 people experiencing homelessness in Maricopa County, according to a January report, and many of them don’t have regular access to running water and sanitation. 

The Arizona Republic spoke with numerous people who lacked running water. They recounted stories of saving up the $15 it would cost to take a shower at a truck stop, rationing how often they used the toilet, not eating because it meant dirtying dishes that would need to be washed later, building a makeshift shower.  

“Even as Phoenix grows and booms and moves up the chart in terms of size and becomes like a real destination city, its level of plumbing poverty hasn’t really changed in 17 years,” said Dr. Katie Meehan, the lead author of the Kings College London report and an expert in water governance and environmental justice.

“Most people will try to direct you to a rural area, but there are plenty of folks that are right in the middle of the city, probably within a 5 mile distance of downtown Phoenix that lack a toilet or running water,” Meehan said, “which I think is really shocking.” 

Many in metro Phoenix lack access to running water.

Whether water is a human right that should be free for everyone or a commodity that can be bought and sold has long been a topic of debate. Some say that since water is a resource vital to life, it should be treated as a shared public resource and supervised by the government. Others believe the commodification of water is the most efficient way to manage a scarce natural resource. 

The U.S. treats water as both a commodity and a human right in practice. Anyone has the right to enjoy public waters, like lakes or rivers. But public water utilities, the departments run by cities and towns that provide water to most Arizonans, can disconnect water if users don’t pay their bills on time.  

It would be difficult to find someone who doesn’t believe that water is a human right, according to Kathryn Sorensen, director of research at Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy. She said that in concept, it’s sound. Everyone wants clean water for their own families. 

But delivering clean water might be one of the most expensive endeavors in human history. Water is heavy and corrosive, which means that moving it entails a large amount of energy. It needs to be delivered in concrete, iron or steel pipelines. Add to that the costs that come with treating, storing and pumping water to where it needs to go.  

Sorensen worked as the director for Phoenix and Mesa’s water utilities for several years. To put a number on just how expensive the Phoenix water system is, Sorensen asked engineers to estimate how much it would cost to rebuild their water system from scratch, compiling the results in an informal assessment. Their answer: around $15 billion. 

“The cost of that is astounding,” she said. “And so yes, there’s a human right to water. There’s also a need to pay for and maintain an adequately functioning community water system. And I think it’s the rub between those two things that causes tension.” 

Plumbing poverty is an urban problem

A person filling up a glass with water using the kitchen faucet.

The Kings College London report found there are at least 6,200 households with incomplete plumbing scattered throughout metro Phoenix, although the number is likely an undercount.  

“Despite its rapid growth and ambitious reputation, Phoenix is also a city of plumbing haves and have-nots, divided by hardening lines of class and property ownership,” the report found.  

The authors, including Meehan, a professor and doctoral student from the University of Arizona, a master’s student from Kings College London and a technical manager from ECONorthwest, collected micro data from the U.S. Census from 2000 to 2017 that asked people in a survey to check “yes” or “no” if they had running hot and cold water and an indoor shower or bathtub. The survey also asked people if they had flush toilets for some of those years, but the question was later removed.  

More:Where will Rio Verde Foothills residents’ water come from?

Another 85-page report on water access by two nonprofits (one of the authors is now a water administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency) found that 2 million Americans lack access to running water and sanitation. Of those, 1.4 million are people living in plumbing poverty in the United States, 250,000 are people in Puerto Rico and 553,000 are unhoused people who may lack equitable water and sanitation. 

Both reports cite critical gaps in federal data collection and say numbers on plumbing poverty are likely undercounts, especially of marginalized groups who are typically harder to count.  

And while “plumbing poverty,” or the state of living without hot and cold running water, an indoor bathtub or shower and a flush toilet, has long been thought of as a rural problem, the Kings College London report and others suggest it’s a distinctly urban and suburban problem. 

About 460,000 households in the United States didn’t have piped running water in their homes, and of those, 73% live in metropolitan areas, the Kings College London report found. 

This graphic shows where houses are not plumbed and lack access to water.

Rural areas and tribal communities face serious water issues. In La Paz County, pumping by industrial agricultural operations has dried up individual wells, forcing some residents to haul gallons of water back to their homes. The Rio Verde Foothills area northeast of Phoenix was long beyond the reach of any municipal water pipes. And centuries of systemic racism and colonialism left many people on the Navajo and Hopi nations without running water.

The Kings College London report didn’t account for plumbing poverty on tribal lands, since that data wasn’t available in the U.S. Census.

Phoenix ranks near the middle of the major metro areas the Kings College London report examined. Out of the 15 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., Phoenix has the ninth-largest number of residents who experience plumbing poverty. Cities with the highest level of plumbing poverty were New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

But unlike New York City and Los Angeles, which have seen rates of plumbing poverty decline, Phoenix’s rates have remained stagnant, according to the report. In 2000, about 5,800 people in metro Phoenix reported not having regular access to running water and sanitation. By 2013-2017, that number had risen to 6,200, just about keeping up with the region’s growth rate.

The report found that renters, households of color (particularly Black and Indigenous households) and people living in areas of widening income inequality experienced plumbing poverty “to an exceptional degree.” 

“I think anybody who studies inequality and racism in the United States, these results aren’t actually that surprising,” Meehan said. “They correspond with research around poverty and marginalized communities that we see in multiple sectors, not just water supply or water provision.” 

Most unplumbed households in Phoenix are renters, Meehan said, one of the report’s most surprising findings. 

“A lot of people in the U.K. asked me, ‘Well, are there no renter protection laws?’ And there are. There are all over the United States. They’re not necessarily great, but there are renter protection laws,” Meehan said. “However, the fact that they’ve been eroded, or that people aren’t enforcing them, or the city council or housing authority doesn’t have the capacity to actually check up on dirty landlords who are renting these facilities, that’s a big area that I think is really shocking.” 

Arizona law requires landlords to make timely repairs and specifically requires them to supply hot water. Tenants can terminate a lease if the problem isn’t fixed within 10 days. 

‘We couldn’t fill up the jugs fast enough’ 

Tim Wiedman and his mother, Pam Wiedman, went about two weeks without running water. They received a paper notice on their front porch warning of a disconnection, and sure enough, when they turned on the faucet, nothing happened.  

Tim and Pam were shocked. They had paid their rent on time.  

“It was a really stressful time,” Tim said. “I would wait till I hear (my mom) snoring and I’d just break down crying. There was nothing I can do.” 

The Wiedmans couldn’t afford to change apartments like one of their neighbors in the fourplex, who they said received financial assistance from a family member. And Tim was still recovering from COVID-19. 

Pam Wiedman gets emotional as she describes her troubles due to lack of water and plumbing she and her son experienced at their Mesa home during the summer.

Members from their church in Mesa, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, brought them gallon jugs of water each day. Pam and Tim used it to quench their thirst, wash their dishes, take sponge baths and fill their toilet tanks. 

The ordeal took a mental toll on them. Pam, who has been formally diagnosed with anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder, said the water disconnection sent her stress levels soaring. 

This was the second time their water had been disconnected. Over a decade ago, the family went without water for about a month when a different landlord in Mesa foreclosed on the property. 

To save water, Tim employed a rule he learned as a Boy Scout, letting yellow waste “mellow” and only flushing down solid waste. 

By the end of the two weeks without water, Pam refused to eat unless food was delivered to them. Cooking meant dirtying dishes that would later need to be washed, demanding a portion of their finite supply of water. As it was, there was already a pile of dishes in the sink.  

“We were burning through so much water so fast that we couldn’t fill up the jugs fast enough,” Tim said. 

Pam Wiedman shows a photo of water she had to buy when her water was cut off at their home in Mesa.

Tim said their family usually tries to problem solve their way out of sticky situations. He said his mom is a bit proud and said it takes a lot for her to ask for help. Finally, after more than a week without water, Pam talked to her caseworker, who connected her with Christian Lundin, a housing specialist at Pam’s mental health clinic.  

“I was at that breaking point when they turned the water back on,” Pam said. “I was going to call my caseworker and say, ‘I don’t care if you have to put me in the hospital, I can’t be here no more.’ Mentally I was done.” 

Lundin wasn’t able to reach the Wiedmans’ landlord. The landlord later told the Wiedmans he was out of town, dealing with family issues, and had set up utility payments on autopay. He said he assumed the water bill had been paid.  

Lundin said she called Mesa’s customer service department, but the customer service representative told her there was nothing they could do to restore the Wiedmans’ water until the bill had been paid. 

She called KNXV-TV, Channel 15 news. A reporter there called Mesa for comment, and soon after, the city turned on the Wiedmans’ water, but it warned that the water could be shut off again if no one paid the bill, according to Lundin.  

“If you think about it, even though it’s all the city of Mesa, it’s all very separate. It’s just a bunch of people doing their nine-to-five jobs,” Lundin said. “Nobody really communicates about really anything. Unless you go above and beyond and try to go outside of the box, you’re not going to get help.” 

Lundin looked to raise funds. She contacted Arizona Behavioral Health Corporation and Home Inc, organizations that provide affordable housing to people with behavioral needs, who paid the two months’ outstanding balance, a total Lundin later found out was $297 for the fourplex.  

Tim Wiedman checks a water valve outside his mother's apartment at their home in Mesa.

“I’m thinking the whole time (the bill) was in the thousands or something,” Lundin said. “No, it was so low.” 

The Wiedmans’ landlord later paid Arizona Behavioral Health Corporation and Home Inc. back the $297. 

Firm believers in learning from life’s challenges, Tim and Pam talked about what they learned from having their water disconnected. Tim said he learned to stretch his patience, Pam that she should always have water on hand. 

In her dark purple bedroom, four months later, Pam kept four plastic jugs of water, seven gallons in all, lined up in front of her bed. 

“You know that saying? ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me?’” she said. “I’m not going to let it fool me again.” 

Pam called for additional investigation before a utility decides to shut off someone’s water. It’s not enough to just contact the property’s landlord, she said. The city should take into account renters and contact the people who actually live in the property.  

“I want the city of Mesa to have something in place so that buildings like this don’t get their water shut off. At least investigate before they shut it off,” Pam said.  

Emergency water is stored inside Pam Wiedman's bedroom at her home in Mesa.

After COVID, cities’ shutoff rules differed 

Across the country, water utilities stopped shutoffs at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as public health experts emphasized the importance of handwashing to prevent the spread of the virus. Some cities were trying to permanently ban water shutoffs, like Detroit, which has some of the country’s highest water costs. 

In Arizona, where water policy is decentralized, municipal water utilities have differed in timelines to start shutoffs again.  

Gilbert and Goodyear started disconnecting household water for unpaid bills in January 2021, followed soon by most other cities in the region. Tempe restarted disconnections a year later in January 2022. And Phoenix has yet to restart disconnections.  

Troy Hayes, director of the Phoenix Water Services Department, said the city decided not to start disconnections at the beginning of the year as planned because of the spike in COVID-19 cases. The city has instead relied on low-flow devices, which they installed in a test-run before the pandemic, to reduce water flow from the normal 30 gallons per minute to a drip of 0.4 gallons per minute.   

Phoenix has said it’s one of the first cities in the United States to test a low-flow program as a compromise to water shutoffs. The city attached small metal discs the size of quarters to the pipe where the meter connects to the service line, drastically reducing the water’s flow. Tucson Water told The Republic it also tried to install low-flow devices, but because of a disc manufacturing shortage, hasn’t been able to start. 

As of mid-January, customers owed Phoenix nearly $11 million, significantly more than any other city in the region.  

The Phoenix Water Services Department is a municipal utility, but it’s financially independent from the city’s general fund, and it is required to bring in enough revenue to cover its costs.   

When Phoenix Water Services is owed large sums of money from customers who haven’t paid their bills, the department evaluates its budget, Hayes said. Depending on the year, it could mean that the department slashes other costs to break even, or that other water users pick up the slack with a small increase in their water rate, usually 1-2%.   

“Just because we may have less revenue coming in doesn’t necessarily mean that our rates go up,” he said. “We could have had operational efficiencies and other things to help offset some of that.” 

A professional can alert you to leaks that may occur on the inside of the wall of a spigot.

Hayes identified several streams of financial assistance customers can take advantage of, including $5 million from Phoenix City Council, which the city received from American Rescue Plan Act funds. The department has distributed $4 million so far, he said. 

Many of the municipal or public water utilities The Republic contacted said they offer customers payment plans and try to notify them of financial assistance.  

Several cities in Arizona have received financial assistance from the Biden administration to subsidize water bills, although the assistance might not always reach them.  

When Lundin, the housing caseworker, contacted a Mesa employee who handles renter’s assistance, the employee said they couldn’t offer anything to the Wiedmans since their name hadn’t been on any of the previous water bills. The employee suggested the renters in the fourplex could open a new water account in their name and pay the bill instead.  

For both public and private water utilities, a separate issue arises for renters: Their name is sometimes not on the water bill. 

Before turning off a household’s water, water utilities will contact the person whose name is on the bill. If the landlord pays the water bill, the water utility is required to contact only them for delinquency, leaving renters out of the conversation.   

The utility usually isn’t even privy to renters’ contact information, since it’s not required to ask if the unit is rented or not. Because of this, there’s no data on how often landlords pay the water bill versus renters. 

Rules for municipal, private providers aren’t the same 

Public or municipal water utilities serve most Arizonans, including water users in major cities like Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa and Scottsdale. These utilities are overseen by city councils, who set water rates, with input from advisory committees.   

Many small towns in Arizona get their water from private water utilities, run by for-profit companies and regulated by the Arizona Corporation Commission. 

The Corporation Commission regulates “public service corporations,” or private companies that have a monopoly over providing a utility, like water or electricity, in a certain area. The commission makes sure there’s no overlap between private companies that provide water and wastewater or electricity services. 

There are no readily available statistics on how many Arizonans get their water from a public utility versus a private one, but, using calculations from available data, The Republic estimated that about 90% of residents get their water from public utilities. The commission regulated 267,334 single-family and multi-family homes in 2020. The most recent Census data estimates there are 2,643,430 households in Arizona.  

The commission passed new rules last year after protests from activists to limit electricity disconnections for Arizonans during warm weather. The rules state that electric utilities can’t disconnect customers from June 1 to Oct. 15, or when outside temperatures are lower than 32 degrees and higher than 95 degrees.  

Elijah Abinah, director for the commission’s utilities division, said the commission is also considering a move to limit water disconnections for Arizonans, but hasn’t yet made a decision. 

“At the same time the commission was considering the moratorium for the electric company, it also directed staff … to look into the termination of water and wastewater. That is pending,” Abinah said. “We just have not gotten to that yet.” 

But while a moratorium on water disconnections might help some Arizonans, the vast majority get their water from public utilities, where no central regulator means they differ in how they treat disconnections. 

Towns or cities The Republic contacted have few established rules for when the water department can shut off water and when it can’t.  

All the public or municipal water utilities contacted by The Republic said they are required to notify the customer of an impending disconnection, either by mail or sometimes an automated telephone call, before they cut service. They also all said they require a certain number of days to pass after the billing cycle before cutting off water.   

Mesa told The Republic in a June email that it won’t disconnect utilities for residential customers from June 1 to Sept. 30. Scottsdale and Goodyear specify that outstanding balances must be greater than $50. And Phoenix has stopped disconnections for residential customers altogether so far.  

No other utilities contacted by the Republic specified other rules for when they can cut water and when they can’t.  

Even without a common standard, Sorensen said providers do their best to work with customers and avoid disconnections. 

“I think that all the water utilities really try to give as much notice as possible and really try to work with customers to set up payment plans and get them on to assistance programs and anything they can do help them out,” Sorensen said. 

Experts agree that water law is generally decentralized. Most federal and state regulation focuses on making sure water is safe to drink —not protecting access to water.   

Meehan, the expert in water policy and a senior lecturer at Kings College London, said that means some cities are able to adequately service water for residents, while others slip through the cracks.  

“I think people who are scholars in environmental justice know that it’s actually local areas where we see the perpetuation of environmental injustice. If you don’t have a coherent federal policy or set of standards or practices, it’s really easy for some areas to be okay, but other ones to kind of fall through the cracks will get away with naughty business, if you will.” 

Paying for a shower at the truck stop

When people don’t have access to running water, they often find creative ways to meet their needs, sometimes paying to stay at a campground to take a shower.  

Eli Houllis and Rhett Daly, have lived in an RV for about a year. They bought it last year for $5,000 — a steal, according to them — after they were unable to find an affordable apartment in Denver or on the front range of Colorado. Since their RV doesn’t have air conditioning, Eli and Rhett migrate from Colorado to Arizona when the weather is cool, and then back to Colorado when it turns warm. 

Their RV has a toilet, but no running water. They use bottled water to wash their hands and “a lot of hand sanitizer.”  

For grooming that can’t be satisfied by a bottle of water, Eli and Rhett get creative. They sometimes buy a $1.25 pass at a public pool to shower, although pool showers are often meant to rinse off in a bathing suit and don’t have doors for privacy. Eli and Rhett sometimes opt to use a private shower, usually at a truck stop like Love’s Travel Stops or Pilot Flying J, but they might have to pay up to $15 and wait hours in line. 

Eli, who’s 23, and Rhett, who’s 21, met and fell in love immediately, according to Rhett, while working for Fry’s about a year ago.  

They haven’t been able to find stable work since becoming unhoused, instead relying on gig jobs. Eli creates content on TikTok and OnlyFans. Rhett busks and performs at restaurants and other venues with his two-man band Yr Open Kitchen Window. 

“Politicians are so upset saying that no one wants to work anymore,” Eli said. “It’s not that no one wants to work. It’s that no one can get jobs. Number one because we can’t shower. And you’re not going to hire someone who stinks. And the jobs that do hire don’t pay enough.”

Once or twice a month, they stay at a campground like the KOA in Apache Junction, where dozens of RVs are lined up throughout a large dirt lot. There, they can use a private shower, charge their phones, essential for their work, refill their water tank and unload their septic tank. 

“The best way to describe it is, it feels dehumanizing,” Rhett said. “Not being able to have a shower and be clean. Being forced to walk around just greasy and sticky and being unable to do anything about it. Yeah, it’s really hard.”

Bathrooms are seen at the Nora Library, Monday, Sept. 20, 2021 in Indianapolis. Indianapolis Public Library branches will benefit from bonds approved by city county council for upgrades. One upgrade this library would need is to further improve accessibility of the bathrooms.

Lack of public restrooms

Eli lamented the lack of public restrooms in Arizona. Public restrooms, once encouraged by cities and the federal government as a public health measure, have been on the decline since the 1960s.  

“The situation has unraveled in this country to the point where very few governments at any level are building public toilets,” said Steven Soifer, president of the nonprofit American Restroom Association.  

Soifer said the one exception is the interstate highway system, where the federal government has invested in public restrooms at highway stops. Anyone can also use the restrooms at public parks and libraries. But those have limited hours, and like most other public restrooms, don’t include showers that Eli and Rhett look for.  

Many people might think of bathrooms attached to businesses, like Starbucks or a gas station, as public restrooms. But those businesses sometimes ask customers to purchase something before allowing them to take a key to the bathroom, and they almost never have showers.  

And Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, said recently that the company may have to close its bathrooms, although Soifer said that would violate U.S. plumbing codes.

“According to the International Plumbing Code (IPC 403.3) Starbucks (as well as other business establishments) must make their toilet facilities available to ‘customers, patrons, and visitors’ defined as anyone walking into their place of business,” he said in a press release. 

Eli said free public restrooms with showers and water fountains are the bare minimum the government should provide and suggested installing solar panels on the roofs to cover some of the cost. 

“I think they just need to care more about the people that they’re supposed to be serving,” Eli said.  

Online tools, like ToiletFinder and Pee Place, help users locate public restrooms near them. A quick search on the apps shows that metro Phoenix has dozens of available restrooms. 

But some of the restrooms aren’t truly public. They’re at a gas station, restaurant or hotel. And people The Republic spoke with said some public restrooms closed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and haven’t reopened. 

A Republic reporter drove to some of the restrooms on the Toilet Finder app, but they either didn’t exist or weren’t open to the public.  

A coffee shop warns customers that it does not have a public restroom. A bill introduced by Rep. Mia Ackerman, D-Cumberland, would allow people with certain medical conditions to use employee bathrooms.

Kyra King occasionally uses the KOA campground’s showers.  

She moved to Arizona about five years ago, in her 60s, to be closer to family. But after a family dispute, she lived in a hodgepodge of housing situations, including in her car for a few months. Kyra said when her sister found out she was living in her car, she offered her the work shed attached to her house.  

The work shed’s plumbing consisted of just one faucet with cold water that often came out brown. Kyra was allowed to use the showers in her sister’s house when no one was home, but that was rare, she said. 

Kyra’s afraid to drink the water, instead opting to buy bottled water from the store. Without a toilet or a shower, she pours water from the faucet into a bucket that she uses to bathe, the same bucket she uses to wash her dishes.  

“Have you ever smelled propane when it’s running out? That stench? It’s kind of what the water smells like,” she said. “It’s gross. I pour it over and go, ‘Please don’t let my hair fall out!’” 

People have slipped Kyra the KOA women’s bathroom password and she sometimes uses the showers at night. She called the people at the campground kind.

Homeless tents are erected in lots west of downtown Phoenix on May 27, 2020.

Spotty water access in encampment 

In a place colloquially known as “The Zone,” a blocks-large homeless encampment in Phoenix, residents have long reported spotty access to running water and sanitation. 

The Zone is located near the city’s Human Services Campus, which provides food, medical care and legal services to the poor. It’s where the police frequently drop off people without shelter, one unhoused person told The Republic, since it’s “legal to be homeless there.” About 800 people currently live there, according to Councilwoman Yassamin Ansari, who represents Phoenix’s District 7, which includes the Zone. 

The city has recently invested additional resources into water access, building a hand washing station and cooling tent, which provides drinking water, but residents say the services haven’t been consistent.  

Officially, the city offers four sites that provide 24/7 access to water and sanitation: the Brian Garcia Welcome Center, which provides drinking water and bathrooms; a cooling tent built recently for heat relief, that also provides drinking water; a hand washing trailer installed in April; and porta-potties.  

Several offices also provide access to running water and sanitation during daytime business hours, spokespeople for the city said, including the Central Arizona Shelter Services, the main shelter in the area; Lodestar Day Resource Center; and St. Vincent de Paul. Several residents also point to André House, a faith-based nonprofit in the area, as being especially compassionate and supportive with providing access to water.  

But recently, Unsheltered PHX, an Instagram account that calls itself a “street watch” and documents issues unhoused people face in the city, posted a video of the Zone’s handwashing station where taps ran dry. The Republic confirmed with residents of the Zone that the taps hadn’t been working for weeks. 

Councilwoman Ansari said there had been ongoing issues with vandalization, which caused the taps to be turned off. Since the video ran on social media, Unsheltered Phoenix told The Republic the taps have been turned back on and two spigots added.  

“What I want to make absolutely clear is that the city of Phoenix has worked exceptionally hard to get these bathrooms and access to water available to unsheltered residents around there,” Ansari said. “We’ve spent both significant financial resources and human capital resources to make sure that those are available. So it’s our priority to make sure that they work.” 

Residents also report that one of the few public restrooms within walking distance of the Zone, the restroom at University Park, off Van Buren Street, is often locked.  

A clear plastic container catches the water from the makeshift shower Bianca Farias built in the Zone, a blocks-large homeless encampment near Phoenix's Human Services Campus.

Bianca Farias, a 3-year resident of the Zone, said public restrooms within walking distance of the Zone had been without water even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Marisol Oliva-Valenzuela, who has lived in the Zone on and off from 2010-2020, said it wasn’t uncommon for the city to close restrooms at public parks, even before the pandemic. 

“The parks, they would lock the bathrooms and everything,” Oliva-Valenzuela said. “I know the one off of Van Buren, that they definitely closed.” 

Spokespeople for the city told The Republic that the park’s bathroom is open regularly during their office hours, which vary from season to season. When The Republic visited University Park during fall hours, 4 p.m.-8 p.m. on Monday through Friday, the bathroom and recreation center were both closed. Ansari’s staff said one of the employees who works at the rec center left temporarily. 

The city is being sued by a group of Phoenix residents who live near the Zone, who say the encampment has caused them irreparable harm and want the city to fix it. In the suit, they said the encampment is a “humanitarian crisis” where individuals who live on the streets are regularly found dead in the area.  

Lawsuit:Phoenix residents sue city over homeless encampment, claiming irreparable harm

The suit also claims that human waste is regularly found in certain areas. Oliva-Valenzuela told The Republic that some residents of the Zone would pick an area to do their business in if bathrooms weren’t available. 

Farias recently built a makeshift shower near a friend’s tent. She raised a metal basket to shower height and placed a 1-gallon plastic container filled with water inside the basket to act as a shower head. A clear rectangular bucket catches the water and several blankets strung around the shower give the bather privacy.  

She said around seven people use the shower every day. When the 1-gallon container runs out of water, they will find another jug, perhaps a 5-gallon one, to replace it. 

“I don’t understand how they expect any human being to survive without even having water,” Farias said. 

An outside view of the makeshift shower Bianca Farias built in the Zone, a blocks-large homeless encampment near Phoenix's Human Services Campus.

A little over a mile away, David Lane sits at a bus stop with a thermos of water from the First Institutional Baptist Church. The church offers the building’s air conditioning as a heat respite from 12 p.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday through Friday ;it also provides water and allows residents to use the bathroom during those hours. 

On the days First Institutional Baptist and another nearby church, Grace Lutheran Church, are closed, David finds another way to get water.  

A stone’s throw from Chase Field, one building has a spigot that can be turned into a water source with the right equipment. So around 10 p.m., after workers and churchgoers have returned home for the night, David and a few friends gather by the spigot, where there are cardboard boxes as bed mats.  

One friend has a wrench they use to release the water flow and they take turns using the water to drink, wet their shirts and towels and bathe.  

When The Republic asked David if there’s anything he wants people to know, he replied: “Be grateful you have running water.” 

David Lane stores his belongings in a shopping cart near a security camera.

‘They’re doing what they can’

Meehan, the researcher from Kings College London, urged the federal government to spend dollars increasing water access. 

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, passed in November last year, allocates about $55 billion to improving clean water, but most of that money is slated for clean drinking water and replacement of lead pipes, not expanding water access.   

“I do think that it would be useful or worthwhile to direct some of that money to actually connecting this 1.1 million Americans who live off the grid onto safe network-based water supply,” Meehan said. “If we agree with the fact that water is a human right, or at least that it’s necessary to live, then this is kind of a baseline social need that I think is not being met currently.” 

It’s unclear if the Inflation Reduction Act, passed this month, will fund any water access projects, although a fact sheet by the EPA doesn’t mention any such initiatives. 

At a Denny’s in Apache Junction, Kyra King, who lived in her sister’s work shed, told The Republic to “come around at night” and see people cooling off using the sprinklers at Skyline Park. Or to listen to people showering at local car washes. Or to come in, “really freaking early,” and watch as people bathe in laundromat sinks. 

“I would like people to know that this is real out here,” she said. “All we need is not to be looked at or sent, ‘Hey here’s some resources, good luck.’ Open your door. Yeah, we smell. I try not to. But c’mon you can’t catch everybody on a perfect day. They’re doing what they can.” 

Zayna Syed is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic/azcentral. Follow her reporting on Twitter at @zaynasyed_ and send tips or other information about stories to [email protected]

Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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