‘Water Man’ provides oasis for downtown homeless
On a typically hot July afternoon, Michael Hubman arrives at Gladys Park in his navy blue Volvo. He breaks out six gallon-sized jugs of water in a small crate and places it on a foldable cart. Before he can finish unpacking, many recognize him with a call: “Hey, water man!”
Hubman can’t get the water out fast enough. He receives each patron with an enthusiastic greeting and a full glass of chilled water. He wants to talk, but he doesn’t linger. He provides quickly, darting from person to person, armed only with a gallon-sized jug in his hand and a bag of plastic cups in the crook of his arm.
Located at the intersection of Sixth and Gladys Street, Gladys Park is in the midst of Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Once a week, many of the homeless here go to find Michael “The Water Man” Hubman. With his charity organization, Watercorps, Hubman distributes water free of charge or discretion. His experiences downtown have led him to become something like an ambassador and a watchdog to this community.
“Gladys Park is like the headquarters of Watercorps,” he says as he walks in through its iron gates.
As the only park in downtown where people are allowed to lie down, it is a hub of the local homeless community. The park is more concrete than grass, and what little grass available is strictly guarded. For those taking advantage of the less stringent atmosphere, a few tarps are set in the middle to provide a bit more shade.
And wherever there is shade, there are people. Here, Bill Withers blasts from a boom box. Older men play chess while younger men play basketball. Most simply rest. It serves as a respite amid the concrete jungle of the city.
Far from an arbitrary starting point, this park is situated where Hubman first began his water wielding. In the 1970s, he was running with activist circles when he became familiar with a group of world peace advocates, the Rainbow Family. In 2000, he became a member. After participating in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts with Rainbow Family in 2005, Hubman was inspired to do more.
“I was thinking that I should set up for some sort of natural disaster,” he says. “And then I got to thinking that it would be a lot of sitting around and waiting. And then I thought, well there’s a disaster right here at Skid Row.”
On October 15, 2006, Hubman took six gallons of water to the intersection of San Pedro and Sixth Street. He walked up to the first person he could find and asked, “Are you thirsty? Would you like a drink?”’
He bombastically echoes those words as he continues his work four years later.
When he refers to the people he serves, Hubman shies away from the term “homeless” to describe his patrons. They are his “clients.” And he does not serve just any water, but water that is both chilled and osmosis-filtered.
In Gladys Park, Angelina Brookins is a client. She lives a short distance away in the Fashion District, although she was raised in Meridian, Mississippi. She’s grateful for what Hubman does for the community.
“It shows that somebody does love you and somebody cares,” says Brookins. “A lot of people that need that attention. Some get it, some don’t. But we’re all humans, we’re all people. Some are up and some are down.”
Hubman has a strong relationship with many of the food kitchens and outreach centers in downtown. Some provide resources, such as refrigeration for the gallons of bulk water. He works closely with both World Agape Church and the Arts District Healing Center, the first a faith-based organization and the second a cannabis club. Watercorps itself is comprised of a few friends and funded only by voluntary donation. This means it is usually funded out of his own pocket.
The World Agape Church’s cooler was down, so Hubman chilled the water in his own refrigerator. The church has seen better times. Woo Yeshenko, a Korean Christian missionary who is involved with World Agape Church, had been running a soup line for over five years before it was closed down by the Los Angeles County Department of Health due to insufficient health permits.
“His downfall was what made him an effective food provider,” Hubman says. “He was consistent.”
Pointing out a nearby group of Evangelical Christians distributing food from a church van, he explains the dynamic.
“See these people over here, they’ll never get popped,” he says. “They can move around. And they’re here on a Sunday. County Environmental Health is not going to be here.”
He explains that it boils down to the battle for the right to serve food freely. Hubman feels that the efforts are significantly hindered by excessive permit requirements.
“You can’t cook food in your own kitchen and share it,” he says. “Even churches can’t even do it every month. It’s happening all over – people sharing food – but if they get visible enough, they get shut down.”
After distributing water to those standing in line for food, he returns to Gladys Park.
Gary Lett, a park worker who, as Hubman says, has “the right stuff to keep order” around Gladys Park, acts as an informal supervisor of the area.
“We love this guy,” says Lett. “This guy comes down here and gives us water. He comes down here to actually talk to people. He speaks for the homeless people, for people who can’t speak for themselves.”
Aside from frequently speaking before the LA City Council, Hubman’s experiences in Skid Row led him to form the Colation for the Abolation of Safer Cities Initiative [sic]. On his Web site, Hubman describes it as a veiled attempt at “socio-economic cleansing.”
The initiative added fifty policemen to patrol a single square mile of Skid Row. Hubman is concerned about their use of quality-of-life citations, referring to ticketing minor crimes such as panhandling or having an open container of alcohol in a public place.
“They’re trying to criminalize the people that are down here,” he says. “So that if you give me a ticket for jaywalking, you know I won’t be able to pay it. So next time you stop me, it’s going to be a warrant so you can arrest me or push me from the area.”
Lett remains conflicted. “I think they’re trying to make the neighborhood better. I’ve been down here a while and I’ve seen some horrific things … but I’ve seen some change. San Julian Street has been really cleaned up.”
“Let’s go over there with my last gallon and I’ll give you a tour,” Hubman says. However, a few more of his regular clients approach him as he returns to his Volvo. The last gallon quickly vanishes, but the tour still commences.
Here, Hubman gives a brief overview of the lay of the land. The old Skid Row, or “classic Skid Row,” ranged from Third Street to Seventh Street, between Spring Street and Central Avenue. It has shrunk drastically since then.
San Julian Street it is still a hub of addicted and disabled homelessness; however it is far from the “something like Calcutta” of the ’90s, a description Lett announced before the tour. There are noticeably few tents. Clean, open space on the sidewalks is stained, but available.
Whether these changes have directly resulted from the Safer Cities Initiative or just from the outstanding amount of outreach centers in and around the area is impossible to measure.
Although Hubman notes the changes, he is skeptical about the intent of Safer Cities. The ends don’t justify the means for him. And as long as the means are “to humiliate and harass,” as he puts it, he continues his work.
“We don’t change a lot,” says Hubman. “But we fight and we struggle for those that need a voice.”