U.N. officials hear good, bad on Detroit water shutoffs

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Detroit – — Water shutoffs have brought out the best and worst in city residents, the United Nations learned Sunday.

The shutoffs, enacted by the city after many residents failed to pay their bills, have led to residents helping neighbors by giving money, jugs of water or running hoses to their homes.

But a woman said her water bill jumped $600 after neighbors helped themselves to her outside faucet, using it so often they broke the handle.

The woman, Barbara Russo, said she didn't blame her neighbors for their actions.

"If you treat people like animals, you can only expect them to behave like animals," she said.

The residents spoke during a public hearing held by two U.N. officials trying to determine if the water shutoffs have led to human rights violations.

About 350 people attended the meeting in the atrium of the downtown campus of Wayne County Community College District.

Monica Lewis-Patrick, a member of the Detroit People's Water Board, one of the citizen groups that organized the hearing, led a chant with the crowd: "Whose water? Our water. Whose water? Our water."

Detroit resident Valerie Jean addresses the panel during a United Nations fact-finding Detroit Town Hall meeting on Sunday at Wayne County Community College in Detroit.

Members of the group held signs and hung others along the walls: "Water is a Human Right," "Water Justice for All," and "Turn on the Water."

As residents recounted their personal tribulations with the loss of water, they were often supported vocally by the boisterous crowd.

"Today I charge genocide against the president of the United States," Lewis-Patrick said to cheers. "Today I charge genocide against Mayor Mike Duggan."

Resident Nicole Hill said her water was turned off after a billing mix-up. Nine months after moving, she was still being billed for water at her old residence, she said.

The mother of three said she couldn't turn to her neighbors for help because most of them had lost their water as well.

"I went to court but they can't have a hearing until 2015," she said.

Another resident said the loss of water has aggravated problems in a neighborhood already ravaged with blight and foreclosures.

Gregory Price said he hoped the UN officials could do more than just hold a hearing. Otherwise, its effort would amount to little more than "people hollering and clapping."

"I'm hurt. The community is hurt," said Price. "I hope you can do something about it."

One of the U.N. officials tried to temper the expectations of the crowd.

Leilani Farha, U.N. special rapporteur on adequate housing, said the organization can make recommendations but can't force the city to make changes.

She and the other representative plan to meet with city officials Monday and then will propose ways for the city to help the residents.


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