Officials in Detroit have claimed the city has restored the water supply to its residents, but a number of families are still without clean running water and have had their bills paid by a charity, the Guardian has learned.

Water shutoffs were introduced in Detroit in 2014, as part of a widely condemned debt-collection program that critics said has unfairly affected minority communities during the coronavirus pandemic.

In Detroit, the policy before the coronavirus crisis was for water to be shut off for residents who fell $150 behind on their water bills. About 2,800 homes were estimated to be without running water at the start of the pandemic.

But as the pandemic reinforced the need for basic hygiene and sanitary practices, pressure mounted on cities to return water to residents, and Detroit in March became the first city to announce it was doing so.

As part of the moratorium, the state agreed to cover water bills and to pay the $25 reconnection fee, and an additional $25 per month for homes without water. Even after the city announced the restoration of water, residents were being advised to flush the water pipes before drinking to reduce their risk of lead poisoning.

However, many people at the Brightmoor Connections Food Pantry have reported that the Detroit water department has failed to offer the $25 reconnection plan to them – with many pantry customers unaware of the program to begin with. There is no sign of the $25 water restoration program on bills, either.

Brightmoor’s executive director, the Rev Roslyn Bouier, said she was left with no option but to assist people who continued to turn up at the pantry asking for bottled water – after the moratorium was announced. The Guardian has also seen water shutoff notices threatening service interruption as recently as 20 April.

“For the Detroit water sewage department to frighten and intimidate the most vulnerable families already with their backs against the walls [is bad enough] – but more so during Covid-19 … where is their moral compass?

This is a moral outrage that we are even having to challenge this policy of shutting off water. We are not asking for free water – we are asking for a water affordability plan,” said Bouier.

Brightmoor has now paid over $17,000 to restore service to stricken families in Detroit, mainly through donations it has received.

This includes payments towards bills, reconnection fees and payments for plumbing services. Despite a moratorium on evictions being in place, the pantry has also paid thousands to keep people housed during the pandemic.

“I am frustrated with the idea that I have to convince people to see the wrong in this. We are in the middle of a crisis,” said Bouier, who provided the Guardian with the documentation to back her claims.

A DSWD spokesperson said it had not required or demanded customers pay their past due bills in order to maintain service at any point during the pandemic. The spokesperson added that the service interruption threats may have been sent due to a technical error, as part of an old billing system which alerts customers to pay their bills before they fall too far behind on payments.

The continued water shutoffs are causing fear and pain in a community with one of the highest rates of Covid-19 deaths, the majority being African American.

“Common sense says it is racism,” said Bouier, noting that most of those who have had their water shut off are black and poor. The fatality rate of Covid-19 in Michigan is 7% of confirmed cases, but while African Americans make up only 14% of the state’s population, they make up 40% of the state’s deaths.

The city of Detroit has a bad record when it comes to accessing clean running water, with historic problems over lead poisoning, too. In 2017, it was found that 9% of children in Detroit tested positive for lead poisoning, higher than in Flint – including one zip code where 22% of children were found to have lead poisoning.

Asked what state of mind her clients are in, Bouier said: “They are terrified. They are in such panic and in a state of despair because water is still being shut off in real time.”

About the recent extension announcement that the areas with the highest rates of Covid-19 deaths will have shutdown orders extended, Bouier said it is a death sentence.

“The reality is: if you ask people to stay at home without running water, you are conscripting people to die.

“It is such a clear response that’s needed: turn the water on. Keep the water on.”



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