Detroit water crisis sparks impassioned grassroots activism

Crystal Johnson struggled for nearly two weeks for access to clean water flowing freely from the tap.

She does not live in an impoverished nation. The single mother resides in the heart of Detroit.

Johnson, 38, had her water shut off without notice because of a delinquent bill.

“It was a trying time,” she said. “It was really rough because we had a one-year-old in the house.”

She couldn’t afford to pay her water bills for six months after losing an income. Her water bill was a staggering $4000.

Johnson was stunned. She went back and forth with Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) over how they calculated the sky-high bill.

The Water Department wouldn’t budge. After 11 days, with the help of family and friends, Johnson managed to come up with $1,100 to get her water switched back on.

“In the beginning, I bought water from the grocery store, which was extremely expensive, then I used containers to go to a friend’s house,” says Johnson, who lives with her 84-year-old, paralyzed grandmother.

Johnson is one of thousands of low-income residents in Detroit who have had their water turned off. The city ramped up shutoff efforts in late March, with a more aggressive push to collect some of the nearly $90 million owed by residents and businesses with past-due accounts.

The new shutoff program kicks in when a customer has a past due amount that exceeds $150 or when the bill is over 60 days.

Roughly 15,000 residential  shutoffs have taken place since March. DWSD says many customers have had service restored, some within 24 hours.

“What they’re doing is inhuman and unfathomable,” said DeMeeko Williams, spokesman for the Detroit Water Brigade. “When you don’t have water, you can’t wash, cook and you can’t take your medication.”

Williams is part of an increasingly vocal coalition of activists that are drawing local, national and international attention to the issue. The grassroots movement, a multitude of organizations and community volunteers, has been working around the clock to help affected families and restore water services.

Frequent rallies have put Detroit under the media microscope, and the activists have been backed up by the United Nations, which has called the shutoffs a violation of human rights.

“There are a myriad of organizations that have come together,” says Monica Lewis-Patrick, co-founder of We the People of Detroit. “We have no one else to turn to except each other.”

In fact, most activists believe the rate hikes and tough new crackdown are an attempt by Detroit Emergency Manager Kevin Orr to make the DWSD more appealing to potential investors in a bid to privatize the city’s utilities.

Water rates have increased by 119 percent over the past decade, with no accompanying rise in wages. Just last month, the city council approved an 8.7 percent rate increase.

Lewis-Patrick says there is even another more sinister agenda. “It’s an aggressive gentrification plan to force poor people to move out of the city.”

African-Americans comprise 83 percent of the city’s population, with around 40 percent living on the poverty line.

Johnson says it is not uncommon for families to receive water bills that do not reflect their actual usage due to faulty meter overcharges and leaky pipes from aging wastewater infrastructure. “A whole number of these bills are inaccurate,” she says.

Last year, the Associated Press reported that Detroit had a massive problem with leaky pipes throughout its infrastructure, which has led to untold amounts of water being wasted.

Detroit announced last Monday that it would suspend its controversial and aggressive policy of cutting off water for the next 15 days.

Still, Lewis-Patrick says even after the two-week moratorium they’re continuing to get calls that water is being shut off.

“We’re getting calls everyday that water is still being shut off. Even the same day the judge gave the order, we got a call later on that afternoon.”

Note: Crystal Johnson’s name has been changed to protect her privacy

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