In Detroit, Water, Water Everywhere, But Not a Drop for Many a Low-Income Kid

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Water Shortage in Detroit

Cate Gillon / Getty Images

“We’re talking about very basic deprivation,” Dawn Kettinger of Michigan Nurses United said. “You can’t even wash your hands.”

Detroit resident Katrina Dixon has spent more than 40 years working with children and families, most recently as the after-school administrator for the YWCA of Metropolitan Detroit. She’s known as a resource on childcare, household budgeting and other family issues.

So it wasn’t surprising when her 19-year-old granddaughter called recently to ask for advice. Her granddaughter, a summer day camp instructor, wanted to know the best way to talk to a child at the camp who smelled “musty.”

If you know the child, take her aside, say something positive and then lightly inquire about the problem, Dixon suggested. Later you can mention it to the parent and be available as a resource, she said.

This summer in Detroit, the basic resource of water for drinking and bathing can no longer be taken for granted.

Since late March, 19,000 households have had their water service shut off, according to Gregory Eno, a spokesperson for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. This aggressive action by the department was aimed mainly at residential customers, according to the Detroit Free Press.

In June, the United Nations condemned the cutoffs as a basic violation of human rights. That month, the department was cutting off water at the rate of up to 3,000 accounts a week, the Free Press reported.

In mid-August, in an almost Biblical irony, the city on the shore of Lake Michigan is struggling with floodwaters. Rainfall on August 11 flooded basements, upended cars and sent raw sewage into the streets, intensifying problems faced by residents in the city already struggling with bankruptcy.

Thousands without water service

Water service cutoffs were temporarily halted in late July, after pressure from demonstrators and international publicity. Eno said service had been restored to 50 percent to 60 percent of customers after payment arrangements were made. That still leaves thousands of families — possibly as many as 8,500 — with no service.

Some have resorted to illegal water hookups, Eno said, and some of the disconnected accounts may be vacant buildings.

However, the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, which works as a human service agency for Detroit, is still getting a very high volume of calls for help with water bills, according to call center personnel.

Many of those without water are low-income families who are unemployed.

“When there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections,” said Catarina de Albuquerque, the expert on the human right to water and sanitation, in a June 25 statement. De Albuquerque is the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation.

Leilani Farha of the U.N. expressed concern that social services could remove children under those circumstances because their housing is no longer considered adequate. Farha, expert on the right to adequate housing, is also executive director of the non-government organization Canada Without Poverty.

“If these water disconnections disproportionately affect African Americans they may be discriminatory, in violation of treaties the U.S. has ratified,” she said.

She also expressed a concern about water affordability.

Four groups, the Detroit People’s Water Board, the Blue Planet Project, Food & Water Watch and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, sent a report on June 18 to the U.N. about the situation in Detroit.

Dawn Kettinger of Michigan Nurses United pointed out the public health threat when people in a populated area don’t have access to running water, she said. “You can’t even wash your hands.”

“We’re talking about very basic deprivation,” Kettinger said.

Her organization is a branch of the national professional association and labor organization for nurses.

The three primary issues, Kettinger said, are that children can dehydrate quickly, basic cleanliness can’t be maintained and child protective services has the right to remove children from homes without water.

Why it’s a children’s issue

A whopping 59.4 percent of children in Detroit live below the federal poverty level, according to figures released in August by Data Driven Detroit based on the American Community Survey. That’s up from 57.3 percent last year in a report the organization did for the Skillman Foundation.

The poverty rate for children 5 years old and younger is higher: 62.7 percent, according to the Skillman Foundation report. It’s driven by the high poverty rate of female, single-parent families, the report said.

In Detroit, almost 60 percent of single parent, female-headed families are in poverty, compared with 30 percent of married couples, the report said.

The very families who are in greatest need of water for diaper changing and keeping small children clean are the ones most likely not to have water.

Which is why the Maureen Taylor, state chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, is incensed.

In June, the office of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization was inundated with calls from people afraid of getting their water disconnected and others who had already lost water service, Taylor said. Interviewed on the radio program Democracy Now, she lambasted Detroit’s state-appointed emergency manager Kevin Orr, whose salary has been reported at $275,000, for cutting off water to poor women on welfare.

Under his management, the aggressive collection effort was initiated, and water bills were hiked 8.7 percent in July.

In effect, it was an effort to balance the city budget on the backs of the poor — which in Detroit means on the backs of children.

However, after the moratorium was put in place in July, more control of the water department was returned to Mayor Mike Duggan. He announced a plan on Aug. 7 to waive turn-on fees and late payment penalties. The plan would increase staffing and hours at the department call center, improve notification for those in danger of shutoffs and set up payment plans that he describes as affordable.

In addition, the United Way and the city have created a fund to help customers pay their bills. Donations are being solicited for the Detroit Water Fund.

The spike of publicity that led to the moratorium also mobilized community organizations.

Among those was the Detroit Water Brigade, which organized to deliver water to families.

It trained 100 “water advocates” to go with people to the water department to discuss payment arrangements after their water has been cut off, said spokesperson DeMeeko Williams.

“We try to work with parents to help pay their bill,” he said.

Advocates help make sure the family gets a payment plan with no hidden fees or contracts, he said.

People in Detroit are resourceful, said Doncella Jones, deputy director of the Children’s Aid Society in Detroit. But they don’t know the resources that are available, she said.

“People don’t know how to seek out help. The bills pile up and then it becomes a crisis,” she added.

Community organizations have to do a better job of letting people know the resources out there, she said.

Nevertheless, as Katrina Dixon observed, when cold weather arrives, low-income parents will have to make a new calculation. Do I pay for heat or do I pay for water?