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As Detroit water shutoffs continue, groups look to provide emergency relief

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Thousands of Detroit residents are without water service right now due to unpaid bills—but social service agencies and community groups are trying to make sure no one goes thirsty.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department cut off service to more than 7500 delinquent account-holders in April and May—and ramped up shutoffs in June.

Department officials say it’s a necessary step to collect millions of dollars in back payments.

But critics say it’s caused real suffering, and could lead to a public health crisis.

Gleaners Community Food Bank of southeastern Michigan released a statement Wednesday, noting that Detroit food pantries report growing demands for fresh drinking water.

Gleaners said it’s prepared to distribute 6000 gallons of water through partner agencies in Detroit.

An additional truckload of 30,000 water bottles are on the way, donated by Nestle North America through AmeriCares, a global disaster relief agency.

Other, more informal groups are also springing up to create a “water bank” infrastructure throughout the city.

Helen Moore, a Detroit community activist and President of the newly reopened Dexter-Elmhurst Community Center, says neighborhood children have been coming by asking for water—but it’s hard to get their parents to ask for help.

“They are afraid that without water they will lose their children [to social services],” Moore says.

Detroit officials say the shutoffs are needed because too many people simply haven’t been paying bills for too long, starving the system of much-needed revenue.

The water department has shown no indication it will back off the shutoff campaign, which has drawn international media attention, and even condemnation from a United Nations panel.

Department officials insist the shutoff campaign doesn’t target low-income Detroiters, and there are payment plans and other assistance programs available for those who truly can’t pay.

They also point out that most people who receive shutoff notices pay up quickly—and among those who are actually shut off, about 60% quickly have service restored.

But members of the activist network working directly with impacted households dismiss those figures as flawed.

Monica Lewis-Patrick has been canvassing neighborhoods where shutoffs are rampant, and is now trying to help build the network of water banks. She says many households who were shut off have been “isolated because of poverty.”

“They do feel ashamed,” Lewis-Patrick says. “And most of them are scampering around the city to pull the money together to pay the bill, because they really want to pay their bills.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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