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Don't like the water shut-offs in Detroit? Now you can pay someone's overdue water bill

Maegan Tintari

The only time Kristy Tillman could fit in an interview was on her lunch break. That's because of the insane number of reporters emailing her.   

“We never expected the press to get so big! We’re just like, oh man. So we decided we’re going to probably limit the time on that today, so we can get real work done.”

All those reporters want to talk with her about the website she and friend threw online this past Thursday.

It's called Turn on Detroit's Water

Helping Detroiters keep their water turned on...by paying their bills

The idea behind the site is really simple.

"We're not exchanging money," Tillman says. "We're just facilitating matches with Detroiters in need and people who want to give."

Here's how it works:

A Detroiter with an overdue water bill (that's a requirement: the bill must be overdue) submits it, including their account number.

Their name remains anonymous.

Meanwhile, donors sign up too, telling the site how much they're willing to give: $5, $100, whatever.

Tillman and her co-founder then manually break down overdue bills and spread them across several donors.

The donors then use the account number to pay their portion of a bill, get a confirmation email from the city, and voila.

The bill is paid.  

Six days later, 450 donors have already pledged money 

The site went up this past Thursday (July 17).

But in six days, they've already had 450 people pledge money.

"I can relate to having financial troubles ... and I know what it's like to be overwhelmed to the point where you feel you will never dig out."

Tillman says they believe the site taps into two things.

One, outrage. Or maybe just disbelief. 

"It’s the most ridiculous thing that anybody in this country can go without water. And when I first heard the news story about people in Detroit trying to get in contact with the UN about the water crisis, in the United States, just the absurdity of the issue. We just couldn’t sit by," Tillman says.

"And you know, I can relate to having financial troubles. I don’t right now, but I have in the past, and I know what it’s like to be overwhelmed to the point where you feel you will never dig out.”

Secondly, Tillman thinks people like being able to help directly, rather than going through a third party, like a typical charity.

"Because there are a lot of people who are collecting a lot of money on behalf of Detroit’s residents, and not to, like, fault those people because their intentions are probably good, but you just don’t know where the money is going, how the money is going to be distributed…or what the timing is."

"We wanted a way to give people relief immediately and directly," says Tillman.

"And that seems to have been a good sell: people really have bought into the idea that they can give money directly towards the bills. " 

Getting donors is easy. Getting people who need their help is harder. 

Despite more and more donors stepping forward (Tillman says they keep an updated list of donors in a spreadsheet, and "you can just sit and watch it and new names keep coming up"), only 150 people have sent in overdue bills. 

Tillman says that's likely because if you're living in poverty, you're less likely to have regular computer and web access.

Plus, Tillman lives in Boston and her co-founder lives in the Bay area. 

So they're using what few local contacts they have, as well as spreading the word online. 

Tillman is hopeful that, in the mean time, the 15 day pause in water shutoffs will give them time to contact more people in need, as well as build up a bigger list of donors. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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