We are on the road in Detroit, broadcasting from the “Great Lakes State” of Michigan, which has one of the longest freshwater coastlines in the country. But its residents are increasingly concerned about their access to affordable water. A judge overseeing Detroit’s bankruptcy recently ruled the city can continue shutting off water to residents who have fallen behind on payments after a judge concluded there is no “enforceable right” to water. The city began cutting off water to thousands of households several months ago, prompting protests from residents and the United Nations. Today, some 350 to 400 customers reportedly continue to lose water service daily in Detroit, where poverty rate is approximately 40 percent, and people have seen their water bills increase by 119 percent within the last decade. Most of the residents are African-American. Two-thirds of those impacted by the water shutoffs involve families with children. We speak with Alice Jennings, the lead attorney for residents who have lost their water access. “What’s happening here is nothing short of a humanitarian crisis,” Jennings says. “In a military way, the truck would start at one end of the street, and by the time it reached the other end maybe 50 percent of the homes were shut off.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is_Democracy Now!_, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re on the road in Detroit, broadcasting from Detroit Public Television. We’re broadcasting from the “Great Lakes State” of Michigan. The state has one of the longest freshwater coastlines in the country, but its residents are increasingly concerned about their access to affordable water. A judge overseeing Detroit’s bankruptcy recently ruled the city can continue shutting off water to residents who have fallen behind on payments. Judge Steven Rhodes ruled there is no “enforceable right” to water. Detroit began cutting off water to thousands of households several months ago, prompting protests from residents and from the United Nations. Today, some 350 to 400 customers reportedly continue to lose water service daily in Detroit. Detroit’s water authority carries an estimated $5 billion in debt and has been the subject of talks to privatize. Activists have been organizing against the water shutoffs, saying they target Detroit’s most vulnerable families.
PROTESTER: I want to tell you why six kids on this porch when they came to shut off the water, and their parents had to run to try to find how they’re going to pay their water bill. Another woman, she’s pregnant. She has a two-year-old. She’s holding a bill for $400 in her hand, and she’s begging the man, “Don’t turn off my water.” A pregnant woman with a $400 bill. You’re going to close the water off for a woman with a $400 bill who’s pregnant and a two-year-old. Shame on you!
AMY GOODMAN: One of the many Detroit residents protesting the recent water shutoffs. The poverty rate in Detroit is approximately 40 percent, and people have seen their water bills increase by 119 percent within the last decade. Most of the residents are African-American. Two-thirds of those impacted by the water shutoffs involve families with children.
Well, for more, we’re joined now by Alice Jennings, the lead attorney for Detroit residents fighting against the city’s controversial campaign to turn off water service for unpaid accounts.
Alice Jennings, welcome to Democracy Now!
ALICE JENNINGS: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what is happening.
ALICE JENNINGS: Well, what’s happening here is nothing short of a humanitarian crisis. Starting last year, the city of Detroit began to shut water off on homes, and these would be homes with disabled persons, children—it really didn’t matter. In a military way, the truck would start at one end of the street, and by the time it reached the other end there may be 50 percent of the homes were shut off.
AMY GOODMAN: Was there any advance notice?
ALICE JENNINGS: No, there was not. Only the policy and procedure where they would put on the bill, “Your water may be subject to shutoff.” But there had been a process where water was not collected on. So people grew very accustomed to paying some part of their bill, a little here, a little there, maybe buying food, getting medical care. And so, when this happened, it was sudden and abrupt, very abrupt.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, if your water was about to be turned off, you’d presumably try to fill everything you can with water, but you don’t have that chance.
ALICE JENNINGS: There wasn’t even that chance. In fact, the late Charity Hicks was arrested in her neighborhood, a true water warrior and food justice warrior. She was arrested when she tried to have the folks who were cutting the water cut off to just stop for a few minutes so her pregnant neighbor could get water from some of the neighbors who had water. And they wouldn’t. So she was taken to jail and arrested.
AMY GOODMAN: The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has defended its actions, saying the water shutoffs are necessary for alleviating the department’s debts. This is Greg Eno, the public affairs specialist at DWSD.
ALICE JENNINGS: Yes, and just to state to that—
GREG ENO: We’re trying to work with people more aggressively—let’s put it that way—to try to get—
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what it is that they are saying?
ALICE JENNINGS: Yes. We filed our constitutional lawsuit based on the fact that the Equal Protection Clause should cause both commercial accounts as well as individuals to be treated the same. In this instance, some of the commercial accounts owed millions of dollars, while the families may have only owed $150. And so, part of the claim is that the treatment is different. And there wasn’t a chance for families to get the help they needed to avoid the shutoff. And certainly, where community children and seniors are involved, that should always be the goal.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to what the sewer department is saying.
GREG ENO: We’re trying to work with people more aggressively—let’s put it that way—to try to get them either on payment plans or to get them paid. And it has worked. It has—we’ve increased our—we’ve lowered our debt a little bit by doing that.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Greg Eno. Your response?
ALICE JENNINGS: And my response would be to Greg Eno that there is not any differentials being made as to whether or not there is a family who doesn’t have the resources to pay for the water. And in fact, there is a policy and practice now in existence, just in the last month or so, to try to make some determination as whether there’s the ability to pay or affordability. But at the time we filed the lawsuit, nothing was being done, and so the shutoffs just occurred.
AMY GOODMAN: So who are you representing?
ALICE JENNINGS: We are representing 10 individuals who have stood up, who all of them have either had their water shut off, about eight of them, or—and two who were very close to being shut off because the landlord didn’t pay the bill. Then we’re representing the Michigan Welfare Rights, the People’s Water Board, Moratorium Now, as well as the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network.
AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t this also a matter of hygiene, of how you deal with keeping clean? What about the kind of infections we’re dealing with today?
ALICE JENNINGS: It is so much a safety issue. In fact, the director of the Wayne County Health Department just recently proclaimed that there is a medical emergency in the city of Detroit because of the shutoffs. With poor sanitation comes all types of medical conditions. There is the ability to become dehydrated, particularly with children and senior citizens. There is an issue of contamination, going from neighbor to neighbor to get water and taking different kind of germs and sanitation issues. And we’re afraid, frankly.
AMY GOODMAN: The issue of the enterovirus?
ALICE JENNINGS: The enterovirus 68 has reached Michigan just last week.
AMY GOODMAN: That has killed children in Denver, in New Jersey.
ALICE JENNINGS: That’s correct. I mean, this is—Judge Rhodes, even as he ruled against us, acknowledged that the irreparable harm to children and families could occur by his ruling, if there wasn’t a water restoration to these homes. But because of money and the need to have revenue, he decided on the side of money instead of on the side of health and safety and on the side of the people.
AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. and international water activists weighing in, has that had an effect?
ALICE JENNINGS: Well, we’re hoping for sure that it will. Next Saturday, Sunday and Monday, the U.N., two of the rapporteurs, will be here. Ms. Leilani Farha is the U.N. delegate for housing, as well as Catarina de Albuquerque, who is water and sanitation. They will do fact finding. There will be a public hearing. There will be a meeting with the mayor. There will be a meeting with the legal team, as well.