When the City Turned Off Their Water, Detroit Residents and Groups Delivered Help

Grassroots action has backed down the city’s aggressive water shutoffs.
Detroit Water

Activists, including actor Mark Ruffalo, union members, and Detroit residents streamed through downtown Detroit on July 18, 2014, protesting the controversial water shutoffs and calling for local democracy and economic justice. Photo from Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

This article appears in Cities Are Now, the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine.

The Detroit water-rights movement really got into gear when Charity Hicks was taken to jail while trying to stop shut-offs on her block. “It started a windstorm of people rising up and speaking out, knowing what was happening regarding the water,” says Detroit poet and activist Tawana Petty. “She was always instrumental in the water struggle but her personal experience brought it home to everyone.”

Petty is referring to the day in April 2014 when Charity Hicks got up about 6 a.m. and found she had no running water. She looked outside and saw the truck from Homrich Wrecking Inc., a water shut-off contractor. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) had been aggressively shutting off water for residential accounts that were reportedly more than 60 days or $150 overdue.

Hicks rushed outside, barefoot and in her pajamas to confront the contractor.

Charity Hicks

Charity Hicks

“My water is not due to be shut off,” she told them. “I have a few days to pay my bill and I haven’t received a shut-off notice.”

The Homrich employee moved on to a neighbor’s home. They get paid by the shut-off and he wasn’t wasting time talking about it. Hicks followed him.

It’s not clear how it happened but Hicks cut her foot. She called 911 on her cellphone. The police came but instead of taking a report, they took her to a state detention facility where she spent the night.

And she was detained but never charged.

Hicks was well-known in Detroit activist circles. She was one of the principals in setting up the Detroit Food Policy Council. She worked at the US Social Forum 2010, and was active with the Great Lakes Bioneers, the Sierra Club and the Detroit Food Justice Task Force. She was a longtime member of the Detroit People’s Water Board (DPWB), which takes a broad approach to water, including a commitment to protecting the watershed—it’s not just about helping poor people keep the water running. Given Hicks’ long association with the DPWB, there’s a certain irony to her getting crosswise with the city about water. But that’s what it took to get DPWB and its allies to direct more energy to the issue of water shut-offs.

“Initially it was more of a policy struggle,” Petty says. “This made it more of a human struggle where everybody realized just how aggressive it really was. It became a bigger fight for us. We had to take it on more of a human level.”

There were demonstrations, where protesters emphasized that access to affordable water is a human right. A Canadian water brigade twice crossed the border to deliver hundreds of gallons of water to makeshift water stations that popped up in neighborhoods.

Valerie Blakely’s home became a water station after she stopped a Homrich worker when he showed up at her home.

Detroit has a host of problems, but surrounded by the Great Lakes, it seems that water should not be one of them.

“He proceeded to move down systematically and shut off most of my neighbors,” says Blakely. “That morning I put a message on Facebook and water started flowing in. The People’s Water Board, the Detroit Water Brigade, the Occupy folks, the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, everybody showed up with lots of water and food to distribute in my neighborhood, no questions asked. You took what water you needed, and personal hygiene kits. We had kids go to the homes of elderly people to find out if they needed water or food, and to make sure they weren’t sitting in despair by themselves. It was a neighborhood community activist operation.”

In June, after activists submitted a report to the United Nations detailing the shut-offs, the organization’s Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner said it was a violation of human rights to shut off residents’ water without verifying their ability to pay. Then the Detroit City Council added insult to injury by raising water rates that were already higher than the national average.

In July, after a protest blocked the gates at Homrich for several hours, leading to the arrest of eight activists, the DWSD announced plans to use $1 million from its Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program to help low-income customers avoid shut-offs.

As of the end of October, some 27,000 people’s water had been shut off, although officials claim that 85 percent of those were turned back on after arrangements for payment.

There were two moratoriums on shut-offs during the summer and the water department began holding water affordability fairs where customers who could demonstrate financial hardship could receive help from the assistance fund, and others could set up payment plans.

This is a far cry from the way shut-offs began, when the water department, known for its bad record keeping, shut off water without sending notices and shut off some whose bills were paid up. Notoriously, the department went after residents when it was later revealed that corporate and institutional clients such as a golf course management company and Wayne State University owed hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the state of Michigan, the Detroit Lions, Olympia Entertainment, and the Detroit Athletic Club owed tens of thousands.

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Detroit has a host of problems: poverty and unemployment, failing infrastructure, and plummeting population. But, surrounded by the Great Lakes, it seems that water should not be one of them.

Grassroots progressive action has backed down aggressive action by the city and its contractors. Hicks was one who connected the dots to show that this is just one front of an overall fight for food sovereignty and environmental justice, from the wetlands of New Orleans to climate refugees in the Arctic Circle to those fighting for land rights in Brazil. There are still plenty of warriors in the battle.

Shortly after she spent the night in jail over her water shut-off, Hicks went to New York to speak at the Left Forum 2014. She was injured in a hit-and-run accident and died without regaining consciousness.

“The trail that Charity laid out is a trail that you have to continue on. It’s only through organization that the powers that we are fighting begin to listen,” said Marian Kramer of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization at Hicks’ memorial.

“Charity stood up for us,” said the Rev. Barry Randolph, pastor of the Church of the Messiah, at the service. “We’re going to move this forward.”

Or as Hicks would say, “Wage love.”