Detroit Returns to Shutting Off Water on its Own Residents
The brief reprieve that Detroit residents received over the summer is done, and the city of Detroit has returned to shutting off the water for those who haven’t paid their bills. According to ThinkProgress, “The federal judge presiding over Detroit’s bankruptcy trial denied a request for an injunction against the Detroit Water and Sewer Department on Wednesday, ensuring that the DWSD can continue shutting the water off at homes and businesses that are behind on their bills for at least the next two weeks. If shutoffs continue at the same rate over that period, between 3,000 and 6,000 customers will lose their access to clean, running water.”
Detroit began shutting the water off on residents back in July, where homes that were even as little as $150 past due were shut down thousands at a time. In mid July, after massive protests against the action, as well as scrutiny over the city’s decision to target residents while allowing large businesses with hundreds of thousands of dollars in delinquent bills to continue to avoid payments, Detroit chose to take a hiatus on water shut downs. Instead, they said they would use the period to work with those who needed time to make payments, and consider affordable payment options to make that occur and bring them up to date.
The plan to bring water bills current wasn’t just a Detroit residents project, but became a national effort. A movement sprung up to assist locals by hooking them up with out of state donors willing to pay part or all of their outstanding bills.
Still that wasn’t enough to assuage the city managers, who are trying to get the city out of bankruptcy, even if it is on the back of the poorest of its citizens. Human rights advocates, meanwhile, continue to remind the city leaders that water isn’t a luxury, but a human right that should belong to everyone. “[A]ttorneys argued that the moratorium should continue until the city improves its policies for informing customers that their water will be turned off,” reports the Los Angeles Times. “In one case cited by attorneys from the ACLU, water was cut off for a woman who needed water for her feeding tube, although the water department is supposed to allow postponement of payment for medical reasons. ‘We think there’s a humanitarian aspect to it, but we also think there have been due process violations,’ Veronica Joice, an assistant counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The water department ‘has policies on how it conducts water shut-offs, and those policies haven’t been followed,’ she said.”
Detroit citizens haven’t been taking the returning water shut offs lying down. One response to the ruling has been the “Detroit Water Brigade,” a group that has raised awareness of water as a civil right by literally drawing buckets of water from the Detroit River. “Water is a public commons that belongs to all of us,” Detroit Water Brigade Spokeswoman and Creative Director AtPeace Makita said in a press release. “People need water to live, and Detroit is surrounded by it: 21% of the world’s surface freshwater sits in the Great Lakes. We are going to the river to remind ourselves where our water comes from.”
Others continue to draw attention to how the water crisis is a microcosm of the larger issue in the city: poverty rising as infrastructure costs are passed on to every resident. “Detroit has lost more than a million residents since 1950, but the city limits and water infrastructure haven’t similarly shrunk. That’s part of why Detroiters pay some of the highest water rates in the country — despite a poverty rate more than double the national average,” reports Vice News. “And the water department doesn’t have the resources to keep up. When scrappers scavenge copper from Detroit’s abandoned homes, sometimes water connections break, leaving water running and basements flooded, literally leaking money.”
The judge has ordered a mediation in mid September, and that could once again stop the water shut offs and put the water department into a position where it may be willing to once more work with residential customers. Until then, the shut offs go on.
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