Fountain provides drinking water vital to Edmonton's homeless

A woman from St. Albert is behind a donation to pay for a water fountain to make sure Edmonton's homeless have access to fresh drinking water.

Anonymous woman from St. Albert donates money to pay for it

Raphael Belle using the newly installed water fountain outside Boyle Street Community Services at 101st Street and 105th Avenue. (Gareth Hampshire/CBC)

One of the toughest things about life on the street for Raphael Belle is finding fresh drinking water on hot summer days.

"That feeling is horrible," Belle, 52, said Wednesday.

Without shelter of his own, and lacking easy access to buildings where there are fountains, it's more difficult to find drinking water than most people realize, he said.

But this summer Belle doesn't have to go very far.

A new drinking water fountain means he can fill up his Tim Hortons coffee cup with fresh water any time he visits Boyle Street Community Services at 101st Street and 105th Avenue. Belle, who's fighting an addiction and has been homeless for four years, gets help from the programs offered there.

The fountain was installed in June in the alley behind the building.

"This water fountain is a really big thing because we need water close by us because we get dehydrated very fast. This water fountain is a blessing," Belle said.

The water fountain is located in the back alley at Boyle Street Community Services where some people sometimes bed down and sleep for the night. (Gareth Hampshire/CBC)

The fountain fills a critical need for the city's most vulnerable people.

"People don't realize dehydration and overheating can be just as dangerous to your health as being cold and freezing," said Julian Daly, executive director at Boyle Street.

During last year's scorching Edmonton summer, some homeless people got so badly dehydrated they had to be rushed to hospital, Daly said.

"In fact, every summer we've had to send people to the emergency room as a result of dehydration, but last summer was particularly bad because it was particularly hot," he said.

Anonymous donor saw a way she could help

It was after reading the stories about homeless people needing emergency help for dehydration that a St. Albert woman came forward with a donation to pay for the water fountain.

She doesn't want anyone to know her name but Daly said her gesture is making a big difference to many.

"She was very upset to see that people couldn't get access to water in our city, so she made a generous donation which completely paid for the installation of the water fountain. It's a nice gesture," he said.

The water fountain is for the most vulnerable people living on the streets of Edmonton, like this man sleeping under a blanket next to a wheelchair near Boyle Street Community Services. (Gareth Hampshire/CBC)

With many homeless people living with substance abuse issues and underlying health challenges such as diabetes, nurse educator Mathew Wong said sometimes people don't even know their body needs water before it's too late.

He said the water fountain can help prevent a number of health problems as well as giving people access to a necessity most of us take for granted.

"It also empowers people; they can take control of their own health. They don't have to worry about going to ask this person for a glass of water — going and begging for something," said Wong.

Rescue vans hand out bottled water around the clock in Edmonton. The Hope Mission alone handed out 4,500 bottles of water in June, July and August of 2015.

The same van distributed 2,000 bottles of water last month alone.

Several inner-city agencies distribute bottled water from their programs as well, but Daly said the fountain should cut down on the need for so many plastic bottles. It also allows people to get drinking water outside of office hours.

Since the fountain was installed, medical staff at Boyle Street have not had to deal with any dehydration emergencies.

Belle said the location of the fountain makes it convenient for many who are downtown often to access other community services.

He said people drink right from the fountain or bring bottles and cups they fill up to use throughout their day.

"It makes a lot of difference because it's close by, it's right there."