Although Detroit sits next to one-fifth of the world’s freshwater supply, earlier this year the city decided to cut the water off from its residents who cannot not afford to pay for it.
I have travelled to almost all continents in the past decade photographing stories of conflict over water and I have witnessed vicious violence between people struggling for survival. Yet the unnecessary violation of the human right to water in the world’s most powerful country shocks me the most.
One of the most amazing people I met during my journey through Detroit is Fayette Coleman, a 65 year-old retired union worker, whose water was recently shut off by the city.
Fayette collects snow and rainwater to wash her dishes, clothes and flush the toilet. For cooking and drinking she buys bottled water at a nearby Dollar store.
The outskirts of Detroit seen from a landing airplane.
Driving on Woodward Avenue, the country’s first mile of concrete roadway and the ‘dividing line’ between the east and west side, it is pretty hard to imagine that Detroit was once one of the richest cities in the world and the home of the American automotive industry.
Today the poverty rate of the city is around 40% and roughly two-thirds of its inhabitants can’t afford the most basic needs including housing, healthcare and access to safe and clean drinking water. Since this spring the city has shutoff water to over 17,000 homes.
A spray painted sign shows the water has been shut off on a blighted building in Detroit.
Justin Wedes, activist and organizer with the Detroit Water Brigade, talks to a journalist on the phone to set up an interview about the water shutoffs in Detroit.
Justin and I drove around the city and talked for hours about the mechanics of Detroit’s water shutoff program and the effect on its people.
“This country that was supposed to offer you the promise of the American Dream has instead foreclosed on you”, he says explaining the reason of the sense of betrayal people feel in the city.
His organization, a rebel non-profit as he puts it, works to deliver water to families who’ve been shut off by the city, helps people to learn how to conserve and collect water, and organizes campaigns and protests to raise awareness of the situation that he clearly sees as a violation of basic human rights.
Cass Corridor in Detroit “was a Skid Row full of drug addicts and prostitution” says AtPeace Makita, the spokesperson of the Detroit Water Brigade, when she tells me about the visible harming effects of poverty before the area was gentrified. We drove here to drop her youngest of her five children at school. AtPeace is an outspoken advocate of the fight for the right to water in Detroit and knows first hand how it feels to go home only to find out that the taps had suddenly gone dry.
I asked Justin Wedes about the severed lamppost when we walked around Highland Park, a city within Detroit.
“The provision of basic public services is not present in many of these neighborhoods. One thing that makes Highland Park notable is that a few years ago the city was delinquent on its energy bills and its utility bills because the tax base basically imploded, there was not enough tax revenue to continue paying the monopoly utility company that was providing light to the city and so the utility company came and removed the streetlights from the good portion of the city’s streets.”
Tricycle in front of the home of Portia Armour, a mother of four, who bought back her home at an auction with the help of the Tricycle Collective.
After I spent a couple of days in Detroit it crossed my mind that if the unpaid water bills are turned into tax liens that could eventually lead to foreclosure maybe the water shutoff program is actually a tool to intentionally displace poor people.
I asked Michele about her opinion.
“We used to talk a lot in Detroit about downsizing, and that was an unpopular word and they changed the word to rightsizing. And then they stopped talking about either and now they just talk about the future city. It’s very unpopular to talk about shrinking the city. It does seem to play into a narrative that benefits those who would want to reduce the population of poor people in the city by simply making it unlivable. And then we have our downsizing, or rightsizing, without anyone really lifting their finger, they let the waves sweep it away, they’re not forcing it by their own hand.”
Michele Oberholtzer, a writer, engineer and environmentalist, visits a family her organization, the Tricycle Collective, helped to buy their foreclosed home back from an auction.
Michele became exposed to the severity of the threat families faced through a part time job she took this summer with 10 other people when she was sent out to survey properties that were entering into the tax foreclosure.
Furious when she found out how little people in Detroit knew about the opportunity to buy back their own homes from auctions she started her organization to raise money to help the families from losing their homes.
Interior of a blighted building in Detroit. As soon as a building is vacated and boarded up it becomes a target. The scavengers often rip the pipes out leaving the water to flow sometimes for months or even years before being noticed.
A security guard opens the door for a customer at the Westside Customer Center of the Detroit Water & Sewage Department.
Usually there is always a crowd outside, AtPeace Makita, the spokesperson of the Detroit Water Brigade, told me but with the heavy snow we are taking our chances. Before I could finish my question to the woman on her way out, an armed security guard stepped right in front of me and asked me to stop soliciting and immediately leave the sidewalk, which he claimed is the private property of the Department. He did not listen or care why or what I came to do here, he just kept repeating the same words in a more and more threatening manner.
AtPeace Makita, the spokesperson of the Detroit Water Brigade, stands in front of a burned out liquor store in the neighborhood she grew up in.
For a while she was considering to come back and help people in the neighborhood any way she could. After seeing it for the first time in about a decade though she realized how hard the task would be.
“The only way this is ever going to get resolved, especially now that I’m seeing it from this vantage point, the only way this problem is really going to resolve, is if both sides learn to communicate and work together. There is no way that one side can do it alone. Whether it’s the government, whether it’s the people, we are going to have to find a way, whether we like each other or not, we are going to have to find a way to meet in the middle. For real. This is ridiculous, and I don’t see how any group of people, even the government can just come in and fix this. It’s too overwhelming, the people that live here have to help them, and vice versa.”
A vacant house next to the former Michigan Central Station building near downtown Detroit.
“It’s a surreal city”, says Justin Wedes, activist and organizer with the Detroit Water Brigade, when I ask him about the empty streets of his native city.
“It is not fair to call it all abandonment because a lot of this was manufactured in a sense that people were pushed out of their homes by mortgages that could not be refinanced, escalating taxes that couldn’t be kept up. Foreclosure and eviction are endemic here and so i think what you see here as you drive through the abandonment and this kind of decay is a ghost town with people still in it. That’s important for people to understand that there is life amidst the ruins. That this is not an abandoned city. It’s a city that has been abandoned by jobs, business – capitalism, you might say.”
“Water is a human right, and so regardless if you are rich or poor, black, white, young, old, you need water to survive” says Justin Wedes, activist and organizer with the Detroit Water Brigade.
“They shutoff about 30,000 households this spring and summer. It drew huge amount of protest and the UN called the water shutoff program a violation of internationally accepted human rights”.
Water bill of Fayette Coleman, a 65 year-old retired union worker, who currently lives without water.
When Fayette couldn’t climb the stairs of her old apartment anymore she had to move. She started renting her new home from the caretaker of the property who wasn’t eligible to enter a payment plan to clear his outstanding water bill so she agreed to take it upon herself after she was assured it’s only a formality.
“The bill that I entered into and was paying was not my bill. It was the bill here. But, he couldn’t do it because they didn’t let him enter to a program and he asked me if I’d do it. That’s the only way I can get water in here if I would and I said OK.”
Fayette, who lives off of a fixed $938 disability pension, had paid the $23 bills until she started receiving zero balances and thought that the property caretaker took over the payment as they agreed. Over time the Water & Sewage Department changed her water meter but she kept receiving bills with zero balance. Until one day she received one for over $7,000.
Fayette Coleman, whose water has been recently shut off, sits in her home in Detroit.
I spent days looking for someone who living without water. People at the Detroit Water Brigade have a policy not to reveal the identity of those they are currently assisting. They asked around but no one was willing to meet me. People are ashamed of being poor, the inability to pay for water is considered to be a stigma for many.
I got Fayette’s number through a friend of a friend. I called her, she was happy to meet. We talked for hours about her life as a union worker at the United Automobile Workers, the transformation of the city she loves from going “from something amazing to oh, my God”, the incident with the water company that led to her losing water, and the bleak future of the young generation growing up without proper education and access to jobs.
A dog walks on a street in Detroit dotted with blighted buildings.
On the other side of the road lives Fayette Coleman, a 65 year-old retired union worker, whose water has been shut off after she wasn’t able to pay the water bill. The Sewage & Water department surprised her with a $7000 water bill after mistakenly sending her zero balanced statements from another closed property.
Blighted building in Highland Park, a city within Detroit.
“What we have in Detroit is a city that has shrunk in its population by over half but it has not shrunk in landmass. This creates all kinds of problems in management and in governance to deal with this oversized city which costs as much as or more to manage but with not only fewer people but poorer people to sustain.”
“Rather than forcefully displacing people in these outer areas we have convenient policies and systems in place that are doing it anyway.” says Michele Oberholtzer, a writer, engineer and environmentalist and founder of the Tricycle Collective.
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