Detroit said it would end water shutoffs to battle...

Detroit said it would end water shutoffs to battle the spread of coronavirus. But people still have no running water

Detroit has led the way nationally in its efforts to restore service to households without running water in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, but activists warn the city is still failing to help thousands of residents living without running water.  

The People’s Water Board Coalition is calling on Mich. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to ensure Detroiters can get water during this health crisis, where “wash your hands” could literally mark the difference between life or death. In a letter, they asked the governor to authorize opening water distribution sites in the city and send other resources.

“We’re on the brink of a serious health outbreak here, because Detroit cannot prepare itself for it,” Michigan Welfare Rights Organization organizer and coalition member Sylvia Orduño told Detour.

People already struggle to maintain basic disinfecting practices without water, she said, and “when we’re talking about adding the virus on top of it, we don’t have a way to protect a majority of the low-income people in the city right now.”

“This has to be a full-on government response, and the city of Detroit failed, so we need the state to step in,” she added. 

Water shutoffs for poor Detroiters have been an ongoing problem for years, drawing national attention in 2014 when 27,000 homes lost water service. United Nations researchers called the shutoffs a violation of human rights. Since then, funding for payment assistance has expanded and shutoffs have declined, but still affect thousands of households each year

Last week, Mayor Mike Duggan and Whitmer rolled out a state-funded initiative to restore water and cancel impending shutoffs for customers behind on their bills. Dozens of other localities have followed suit with shutoff moratoriums; fewer have actually gone as far as to promise to reconnect service like in Detroit. 

Beginning last Wednesday, people have been able to call the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department hotline (313-386-9727) to get their water turned back on for free. After the first month, service costs $25 a month. After the coronavirus emergency is over, rates will go back to normal, though people will be enrolled in assistance programs.

“The only residents in Detroit who should not have water on are those who don’t reach out,” Duggan said when he announced the program. “It won’t be for a lack of money.”

But there have been multiple hurdles, with reports of long call wait times, difficulty reaching shutoff households and plumbing issues that complicate the restoration process. 

By this Tuesday, DWSD had restored service to 400 homes, or 40% of the 1,000 hotline callers who had shutoffs. In the week since the hotline launched, more than 5,000 people have called, including 200 who were able to prevent impending shutoffs. (Most of the rest were already paying their full bills or enrolled in a financial assistance program; neither category is eligible.) 

However, the department says there are 2,800 households that lost service since April and haven’t had their water turned back on. City-contracted doorknockers left flyers at those homes in the last week with info about how to get their water turned on, but even if all called the hotline ASAP, it would likely be weeks until restoration was complete. DWSD said they have the capacity to turn about 100 accounts back on daily, with restoration often taking an hour or more at one home.

“We believe many households will never regain residential water service,” the People’s Water Board wrote in their letter to Whitmer. 

DWSD and Whitmer’s office did not respond to requests for comment. 

“There’s no way that this can be resolved in any sort of short-term way. The problems that we’ve been talking about with the water shutoffs and their related health impacts are too big,” Orduño said. “We’ve been telling city officials for years, you’ve got to prepare for this.”

Activists have particularly stressed the public health arguments to restore water service in the last several years, as the city experienced some of the worst of the state’s Hepatitis A outbreak.  

“If you want people to hand wash with soap, then they’ve got to have the water at home to do so,” Orduño added. 

The coalition of groups fighting water shutoffs say there are several things the state could do to help immediately. The most pressing, and possibly simplest, is to open emergency stations for individuals (and community groups that deliver) to pick up free water and cleaning supplies, so they can immediately follow best practices for protecting themselves and preventing the spread of COVID-19. 

There’s precedent for this: During the Flint water crisis, when the city’s drinking water was contaminated with lead and unsafe to drink, the city opened community aid centers that distributed water for years, funded by the state as well as private donations. 

Water pickup sites aren’t a great replacement for actual running water, but they’re particularly necessary now. As anxious shoppers clear out stores’ stock of essentials, including bottled water, Orduño said community groups who distribute water to those in need have struggled to find enough to buy. The average person probably doesn’t need to hoard it, but a family without running water absolutely needs those cases to wash their hands as much as possible. 

The coalition of activists, which includes human rights, environmental and religious organizations, is also calling for Whitmer to tap more federal and state resources. “Government aid would include the logistical expertise and capacity of the National Guard, as well as the deployment of water system personnel and plumbers from across the state,” they wrote. They also want the Michigan Health and Human Services Department to expand emergency benefits, including things like water heater replacement. 

In the long term, activists want the same changes they’ve been pressing for years, even when the immediate health crisis is over: no more water shutoffs for residents who can’t afford their bills, and a rate structure that takes income into account. (Detroit City Council unanimously passed a resolution supporting the same changes last week.)  

“Your urgent response will help ensure the COVID-19 public health risks in Detroit are contained,” the letter to Whitmer concludes, “and that the city does not experience a man-made crisis in similar effect as Flint.”

The People’s Water Board Coalition is working to open a donation site where people can safely drop off water that community groups will distribute. Location and hours will be posted on their Facebook page in the near future

Top image: Credit StockSnap/Pixabay

Kate Abbey-Lambertz is the co-founder and editorial director for Detour Media. She leads editorial strategy for the signature Detour Detroit newsletter, The Blend and special projects, while shaping Detour’s membership program, audience development initiatives and design. Kate was previously a national reporter at HuffPost, where she covered equitable cities and urban issues. She launched HuffPost’s Detroit vertical, serving as reporter and editor, and has reported on Detroit for a decade. Follow her on Twitter: @kabbeyl