Detroit Cuts Off Water To Thousands Unable To Pay Their Bills

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Thousands of the some 700,000 people who call Detroit home are currently living without access to water after the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department turned off their water because they hadn’t paid their bills.

As the shut-offs occur without warning from the department, residents don’t have time to fill buckets, sinks and tubs with water. This concerns human rights activists, who point out that as a result, “Sick people are left without running water and running toilets. People recovering from surgery cannot wash and change bandages. Children cannot bathe and parents cannot cook.”

It’s a practice that has been in place in Detroit for years, even though residents of the city plagued by high unemployment and a poverty rate of around 40 percent have struggled to keep up with water rates that have increased about 119 percent over the past decade.

The average monthly water bill in the city is currently around $75 per household.

Also contributing to bill delinquency are the “smart meters” that the state installed on homes. After these were installed, residents were asked to determine how much they owed, based on meter readings, rather than being issued a bill by the department. These meters reportedly read backwards, as well, meaning that residents could be charged for previous tenants’ water useage.

According to the water department, city residents owe about $118 million — a figure that does not include what is owed by residents on payment plans or by those who have declared bankruptcy. Those who fail to pay their bills have the overdue charges rolled into their property taxes, putting an individual’s home at risk for foreclosure if they are unable to pay.

Black residents are predominantly affected by the loss of access to water. As children live in two-thirds of the currently affected residences, child welfare authorities have had to remove some of these children from their homes because of a requirement that all children live in a home with working utilities.

Concerning for Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, is that the water department has pledged to turn the water off for all 120,000 residences with delinquent accounts — about 3,000 each week — in the city by the end of the summer. However, Barlow says the department has made no plans to shut off the water for any corporation or institution that has failed to pay its water bills.

“What is happening in Detroit is a social crime and a violation of the human right to water and sanitation as recognized by the United Nations,” Barlow said. She explained that the right being violated is the “Obligation to Respect,” which says that a once is given to an individual, that right can’t be taken away.

Part of the reason that so many people in the city have been delinquent on their water bills is that the department’s revenue structure is based on a city that was once home to millions. Since the population of Detroit has dramatically decreased over the years, the burden of funding the water department has fallen upon the city’s dwindling population.

“Detroit is a victim of decades of market driven neoliberal policy that put business and profit ahead of public good,” Barlow said. “Social security programs have been slashed and their delivery privatized. Investment in essential infrastructure has been slashed…”

She also called this a human rights issue, explaining that there hasn’t been much coverage on the water shut-offs in the mainstream media because the people losing their water are not “middle class white people.” This has left some wondering if the general consensus is that “Detroit is a lost cause and the people there deserve what they are getting.”

Barlow took to her blog to ask President Barack Obama and other U.S. politicians to intervene, since cutting off a person’s access to water — a substance humans need to survive — is “an affront to the notion that we have advanced very far in our understanding of human rights or in its practice.”

“We all stand guilty if we do not shout out against this terrible injustice on our continent.”

  • vallehombre

    The Clearances have come, again, to the homeland inc.

    Keeping the focus solely on the city of Detroit and the harm being done to citizens, while vitally important, is only 1/2 of the story.

    The other 1/2 of the story is the wealth accumulated in the surrounding suburban areas and the planned “gentrification” of Detroit once those bad poor people have been removed and the few allowed to remain to service our self identified elites herded into their own neighborhoods.

    Isn’t THAT after all the AmeriKKKan Dream?

    • Thevian

      Yes, access to water is a human right. Anyone in Detroit can go to the Detroit River and fill a few buckets.

      But expensive infrastructure like pipelines, and water and waste treatment facilities, and round-the-clock service by thousands of employees require money. If someone can’t pay for water to be delivered to the convenience of their home, they can’t expect it to be free unless what they’re saying is, they want OTHER PEOPLE to pay for their “right”.

      How about I come over to you and say to you, “Food is a human right You need to share what’s in your refrigerator and pantry with me and my family. Every night. Even though you worked for it and bought it with your own money.”? Then you’d understand the difference between a human right and “making other people pay”.

      Is that what these people are saying? Because that’s really what they’re saying. They want other people to pay.

      • vallehombre

        The “…expensive infrastructure…”you refer to is paid for through taxes which everyone pays. It is part of what becomes the shared responsibility and wealth we hold in common – the common wealth.

        It is the attempt (mostly successful, unfortunately) to convert the common wealth to private wealth that is the issue.

        Manipulation of the structural inequities in unrestrained capitalism to the advantage of a few self identified elites does not make the victims of these policies responsible for their plight. They are simply victims.

        And if you were to show up with your family and you were hungry, I WOULD feed you. And if you had no place to stay I WOULD help you. And I have done just that more than once. And will again if needed.

        Your contention that those who cannot pay should just be cast aside, ignored, that’s just the way it goes, is offensive on so many levels, in so many ways, that it boggles the mind.

        As disgusting as your attitude is, I will never wish for you and your family to experience that which you so willingly visit on others. Even though some could make a very compelling argument that you might benefit from the experience.

        The fact is NO person “deserves” it.

        But then you probably think money is real too, right?

      • tree hugger

        How about this?

        “However, Barlow says the department has made no plans to shut off the water for any corporation or institution that has failed to pay its water bills.”

        Anything to say regarding that?

  • Jon

    How about a mass march to the suburbs where the water has NOT been shut off and occupying any and every site that has water.? THAT would get their attention!

    • Bone Wilder

      Great idea. Lets go abuse the people who pay their bills but in no way are at fault for you not paying yours. I can only hope you feel despicable for your thoughts here but I don’t think you’re capable.

      • Jon

        The point, Bone (!) is to create the political pressure to restore the service. People can’t live without water. Are you suggesting that poor people, including children, die of thirst due to lack of money? That sounds like a 1% Goldman-Sachs mentality to me!

  • Dawn Wolfson

    Pretty soon they’ll be charging for air.

    • Bone Wilder

      If you were able to define hyperbole then you’d be laughing as hard as I am right now.

      • Dawn Wolfson

        I can define it. Actually, clean air isn’t free. Those who can pay for living quarters where the air is better are generally not poor…

        • Bone Wilder

          Ahhh I see. You can define it because it’s how you choose to communicate. Carry on then.

          • Dawn Wolfson

            Oh good heavens. If I sometimes exaggerate to make a point, it certainly doesn’t follow that I always choose to communicate that way.

  • http://atleeyarrow.org/ Atlee Yarrow

    Look at this as a chance to use more environmental means to reduce waste.

  • Bone Wilder

    It’s the attitudes and opinions of commenters here that can turn a bleeding heart college educated liberal into a stone cold conservative. If you want to live in the first world then you need to pay first world bills. Instead of planning to stand around all day holding signs why don’t you plan on standing around holding someone else’s sign while getting paid to do it? Then you can afford that $75/month water bill! Heck, maybe you can turn the lights back on too! But lets not get ahead of ourselves here.

  • Thevian

    Yes, access to water is a human right. Anyone in Detroit can go to the Detroit River and fill a few buckets.

    But expensive infrastructure like pipelines, and water and waste treatment facilities, and round-the-clock service by thousands of employees require money. If someone can’t pay for water to be delivered to the convenience of their home, they can’t expect it to be free unless what they’re saying is, they want OTHER PEOPLE to pay for their “right”.

    How about I come over to you and say to you, “Food is a human right You need to share what’s in your refrigerator and pantry with me and my family. Every night. Even though you worked for it and bought it with your own money.”? Then you’d understand the difference between a human right and “making other people pay”.

    Is that what these people are saying? Because that’s really what they’re saying. They want other people to pay.

  • http://khanneasunztu.wordpress.com/ KhanneaSuntzu

    Is it possible for people in Detroit to just get out and leave? This city is clearly a hopeless case.