Detroiters struggle to survive without city water

Joel Kurth
The Detroit News
  • A third of all Detroit residential accounts — 68,000 of 200,000 — are at least 60 days past due.
  • As of Thursday, 9,200 residential customers face shutoffs
  • 39,000 residents are on payment plans
Fayette Coleman uses a knife to chip through ice during a cold spell last month. The former factory worker who has health problems has lived without running water since 2013.

How do you survive without running water for more than two years?

First, get a trash can. Put it under the roof to collect water to flush the toilet. Then, get a bucket and remember what your grandparents taught you in the early 1950s, before indoor plumbing reached all of rural America.

“You use your brain. You scramble. You survive because you’re used to dealing with nothing,” said Fayette Coleman, 66, who grew up fetching water from wells in Belleville.

She hasn’t had running water in her Brightmoor house since May 2013. The crumbling home is one of at least 4,000 in Detroit — and perhaps many more — whose water was never turned back on after massive shutoffs attracted international attention last year.

The outcry faded, but the situation hasn’t. Within a block of Coleman’s house on Fielding near Lyndon, at least three neighbors have endured shutoffs, including one who spent months walking up the street, twice a day, to fill buckets at a friend’s before service resumed in mid-November.

Citywide, a third of all residential accounts in Detroit— 68,000 of 200,000 — are at least 60 days past due, city records show.

The water issue is coming to light as a special panel studying water affordability is expected to present its plan to the Detroit City Council in January. The group expects to consider recommendations — including lower prices for low-income residents — when it meets for the last time Tuesday.

Help is available, said Gary Brown, director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Some 39,000 residents are on payment plans, and the city has nearly $1 million available in payment assistance.

“If you come in and say you are having an issue, we can find ways to help people,” Brown said. “But you have to come in.”

More money is expected to be available next year through a program by the Great Lakes Water Authority, a newly created regional system that manages water and sewer in the three-county system. It is setting aside 0.25 percent of annual revenues to help pay bills for those whose incomes are 150 percent of the poverty level or less.

That’s expected to raise $4.5 million in its first year.

That’s a tenth of the total delinquency for city residential customers, $42.9 million.

As of Thursday, 9,200 residential customers face shutoffs, Brown said.

Coleman gets by using bottled water for drinking, much of which she gets from charity. She heats water for sponge baths and flushes the toilet only after bowel movements. Otherwise, she does without.

“One thing I really miss is washing my clothes,” said Coleman, a former factory worker with multiple health problems who lives on a Social Security disability check of $954 per month.

“Once every couple of months, when I’m able to get some money, I can go to the laundromat.”

(Mobile devices: View our interactive map of poverty in Detroit)

Too poor to pay

Detroit’s crushing poverty makes collections a challenge, Brown acknowledged.

Nearly half of the city, 42 percent, receives food stamps, state records show. Sixty percent of households with children under 18 live in poverty, census records show. The average past-due water bill is $627 — nearly a month’s income for an individual living on Supplemental Security Income, which is capped at $733 per month.

“I have $3 to my name,” Billie Williams, 53, said in late November, as he paced the living room of his rented house in northwest Detroit. His water was cut off over a $677 balance.

The onetime Wayne County forestry worker hasn’t had a job in 20 years, after his wife left him with two severely autistic children to care for. One died in April from complications of diabetes, prompting Williams to borrow money for the funeral and wreck his already precarious finances.

“This is a nightmare. I can boil (bottled) water and clean myself up, but what do I do about him?” Williams asked, pointing to his son.

Garmel Williams is 23. He’s about 250 pounds, nonverbal and comes across as aggressive. Every minute or so, he pushes Williams, who swats away his hand.

Garmel is not toilet trained.

“He sleeps in diapers. They leak. The sheets get wet. How am I supposed to wash them?” the father asked.

Williams, who lives on public assistance, took advantage of a Detroit program that restores water for 21 days for those with medical emergencies. He got assistance from the Detroit Water Brigade, a grass-roots group that helps with deposits and supplies water to those without.

The reprieve was short-lived. In early December, the water was turned off. Now Williams is looking for another rental with running water.

“Everything looks like it’s falling down around me,” he said.

Billie Williams, 53, a former Wayne County forestry worker hasn't had a job for 20 years. He cares for his 23-year-old severely autistic son. His water was cut off over a $677 balance.

‘Shutoffs never stopped’

Detroit keeps detailed records on shutoffs, but its billing systems have no way of knowing how many residents remain without water, Brown said.

“That’s one of the challenges,” said Brown, who added his top priority is to fix the issue.

The 4,000 households estimate comes from November city records indicating Detroit shut off water to 22,800 accounts in the past 12 months and resumed service to 18,800 of them. The figure includes an unspecified number of vacant homes and doesn’t include several months of shutoffs in 2014.

Either way, the estimate is far too low, argued Monica Lewis-Patrick of We the People Detroit, a grass-roots group fighting shutoffs. Her group has partnered with several universities to survey customers. It estimates water was never turned back on to at least 17,000 occupied homes.

That would be the equivalent of every home in a city the size of Lincoln Park.

“The shutoffs never stopped,” Lewis-Patrick said. “It’s unbelievable that, amid this renaissance and rejuvenation in Detroit, you have people living in these abject conditions.”

Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, a nonprofit that administers relief, has received an average of 140 calls per month since August 2013 from customers facing shutoffs, its records show.

The agency has assisted 1,713 households, including that of Dekota Booker. Her water was shut off in August over a $3,800 bill. For months, she retrieved water in buckets from a friend up the street.

During the shutoff, Booker said she was hospitalized for a thyroid condition and an infection. She described herself as a cancer survivor who lives on Social Security.

“It’s a crisis out here. If you ain’t got nobody to help you, what are you going to do — die in that house alone?” she asked.

Booker’s water was turned back on in November after she got cash assistance from Wayne Metro, which required her to take classes in conservation and money management. Now, about 20 percent of her total income, $150 per month, goes to pay her water debt and monthly bill.

“Even now, I keep reaching for those buckets,” said Booker, 44. “I forget that I can just turn on a tap. I always feel like there’s another bucket that needs to be filled up.”

She lives around the corner from Coleman, who spends much of her days sitting in a wheelchair walker. Her daughter, who lives nearby, pays for her cable bill and recently gave her a car that doesn’t work. A son lives in Belleville. She doesn’t want to ask them for help.

“I wouldn’t want to impose,” said Coleman, who had a small stroke this year and has heart and lung problems.

“I limit my visitors. It’s embarrassing. You live in struggle every day.”

Coleman’s situation, in many ways, is uniquely Detroit. And it underscores how complicated water shutoffs can be.

She moved into the house about five years ago when her old rental down the street caught fire. Coleman mailed her $400 monthly rent to a property manager and never knew her landlord.

Inside the cramped home, she keeps a stack of water bills.

Initially, they were for $23 a month, which she paid. In 2013, the bill dropped to $0 for several months. She thought that meant the account was paid in full.

It wasn’t.

Fayette Coleman talks about her water bill.

$7,000 water bill

Coleman said she was surprised to learn a separate, larger bill was going to a post office box — and the rental had gone into tax foreclosure in early 2013. That May, another bill arrived at her door: More than $7,000 was owed at that address. Coleman needed $700 to keep the water on.

“How do you let someone’s bill get to $7,000?” Coleman asked. “You know I can’t pay that. You know this ZIP code. Nobody can pay that here.”

Court records indicate the landlord, who lived in Macomb County, filed for bankruptcy in 2015. The News couldn’t reach her for comment.

Since 2014, the Detroit Land Bank has owned the house, property records show. The agency has “no obligations to pay water bills” in homes it acquired through tax foreclosure because the process wipes away all water debt, Craig Fahle, a spokesman for the land bank, wrote in an email.

Coleman hasn’t paid rent in more than a year. She hopes to buy the house — with help from activists — through a program that allows tenants of 4,500 occupied Land Bank homes to buy them with a $1,000 down payment and 12 payments of at least $100.

Until then, she can’t get on a payment plan because she lacks a lease.

Among other reforms to be unveiled in January, Brown said the system will switch to a billing system that ties accounts to individuals, rather than property numbers.

Now, they’re addressed to “resident,” so the city doesn’t know who its customers are or whether they’re in need of help.

The system made it possible for absentee landlords — and tenants — to skip out on bills and accumulate big debts.

It also makes it possible for vacant homes, stripped of plumbing by vandals, to rack up monstrous debts.

Last year, 484 tax-foreclosed homes had water bills of more than $5,000, Wayne County records show. This year, the number fell to 263.

Meeko Williams, a member of the panel considering water affordability plans, said the system is as broken as it was a year ago. He argues the problems are so vast the city should offer amnesty for all delinquent customers until the billing system and other issues are fixed.

Twitter: @cityhallinsider

News Staff Writer Christine MacDonald contributed.

A look at the numbers

More than half of Detroit’s 200,000 water customers are at least 60 days past due on bills. The system shuts off water service for those who are 60 days delinquent and owe more than $150. Here’s a breakdown of the numbers:

200,000 water customers

108,000 are 60 days past due

39,000 on payment plans

15,000 owe less than $150

45,000 are “unaudited accounts” that can involve multiple accounts at single addresses, vacant properties and unauthorized service

9,200 eligible for shutoff

Source: Detroit Water and Sewerage Department