Detroiters Fear Losing Their Water May Mean Losing Their Kids

As thousands of Detroiters have their water shut off over debt, neighbors are helping each other to access water without alerting Child and Family Services.

Valerie Vande Panne

At Detroit’s Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry, Rev. Roslyn Murray Bouier and volunteers unload cases of water for those suffering home water shutoffs. (Photo by Erik Howard)

DETROIT — It’s north of 90 degrees and humid, and Rev. Roslyn Mur­ray Bouier is sweat­ing bul­lets at the Bright­moor Con­nec­tion Food Pantry in Detroit as she directs more than a dozen vol­un­teers unload­ing 84 cas­es of water from a U‑Haul. It’s for Detroi­ters with­out run­ning water.

According to a recent University of Michigan study, water bills in the Detroit metro area average $100 a month, about twice what federal affordability standards dictate.

Peo­ple stand by, wait­ing for their turn. A moth­er with two young chil­dren picks up 10 cas­es. One woman who lives with her five grand­chil­dren has a rash on her arms — per­haps from stress, per­haps from not hav­ing run­ning water, per­haps both. The moth­er and the grand­moth­er are ter­ri­fied to talk with In These Times. They have rea­son: Accord­ing to activists, Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices (CPS) often removes chil­dren from homes that don’t have water (although CPS, main­tains that a water shut­off is nev­er the sole rea­son for removal). Valerie Jean Blake­ly, an activist who helped orga­nize her neigh­bors against a mass water shut­off, says that some par­ents keep their chil­dren home from school for fear they’ll let slip to teach­ers that they have no water and CPS will be called.

Bank­rupt, Detroit imple­ment­ed the shut-off pol­i­cy in 2014. Since then, accord­ing to the non­prof­it We the Peo­ple of Detroit Com­mu­ni­ty Research Col­lec­tive, more than 100,000 house­holds have had their water turned off. The shut­offs can begin fast, when a bill of just $150 is 30 days past due. 

Detroit has both the high­est pover­ty rate of any major U.S. city, at 36 per­cent, and among the high­est water rates. Accord­ing to a recent Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan study, water bills in the Detroit metro area aver­age $100 a month, about twice what fed­er­al afford­abil­i­ty stan­dards dictate.

The city offers a pay­ment plan for those with past due bills to get their water back on, but many res­i­dents see it as a scam. Bouier says it requires pay­ments as high as $200 a month, which may amount to half the pay­check of those on fixed incomes or who can only work part-time.

The city, mean­while, has found the mon­ey to pay sub­con­trac­tor Hom­rich — a wreck­ing com­pa­ny — $7.8 mil­lion to turn off Detroi­ters’ water over the next three years. Sev­en­teen thou­sand homes were at risk shut­off this summer.

Lack of water, com­bined with the hot weath­er, pos­es health risks, espe­cial­ly for old peo­ple, chil­dren, the dis­abled and those who are preg­nant, since dehy­dra­tion con­tributes to mis­car­riage and birth defects. A study by the Icahn School of Med­i­cine found that water-borne dis­eases, such as Hepati­tis A, were more like­ly to occur on Detroit blocks that had expe­ri­enced a water shut­off. The Detroit area is expe­ri­enc­ing the worst Hepati­tis A out­break in the nation, which began in 2016.

The shut­offs have inspired mas­sive local mobi­liza­tion: Four emer­gency water sta­tions like the one in Bright­moor have sprung up around the city. The sta­tions take mon­e­tary and bot­tled water dona­tions and annu­al­ly dis­trib­ute 130 – 150 tons of water. Vol­un­teers even drop off water direct­ly to the homes of those who are unable to pick it up. The drop-offs often hap­pen at night, so nosy neigh­bors will be less like­ly to call CPS.

Detroi­ters are also help­ing each oth­er infor­mal­ly. Those who have water can run food­grade hoses to sup­ply neigh­bors who don’t. Some with­out water sim­ply do their own plumb­ing to bypass the water meter. A spe­cial tool can be used to (ille­gal­ly) turn the water valve back on. Those with the tool lend it freely to neighbors.

The Michi­gan Nation­al Lawyers Guild reports that some peo­ple with ille­gal water hook-ups have been pros­e­cut­ed for mali­cious destruc­tion of util­i­ty prop­er­ty,” a felony. Mon­i­ca Lewis­Patrick, pres­i­dent and CEO of We The Peo­ple of Detroit, calls for the decrim­i­nal­iza­tion of people’s access to water.” Water isn’t meant to be named and claimed,” she says. Every liv­ing thing has a right to water.”

The water shut­offs are trau­mat­ic, says Blake­ly, but it has also brought peo­ple togeth­er. You don’t just think about your­self, you think about every­one,” she says. It’s awful beau­ti­ful. We come togeth­er through love and mutu­al aid, and make sure every­one has what they need.”

Valerie Vande Panne is an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.
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