Update 7/21/2014: Detroit has imposed a 15-day moratorium on water shut-offs -- but it's not enough. The financial aid program for Detroit's neediest people must be reformed.
DETROIT – In response to the growing water crisis in Detroit, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. sent a letter to Detroit officials urging an immediate moratorium on shut-offs while a fair, humane and meaningful review process can be evaluated and implemented to help indigent residents. These measures, the organizations argue, will protect the city’s most vulnerable residents who simply cannot pay through no fault of their own.
“It is unconscionable for city officials to create a humanitarian crisis without regard for the poor, children, elderly and those with special needs by denying water to them,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director. “The problems facing the city’s water department go far deeper than those created by individual residents. City officials are misrepresenting a complex situation and perpetuating harmful stereotypes that are a disservice to the City. Low-income city residents should not be forced to pay the mounting cost of disastrous bond deals, crumbling infrastructure, and a dwindling population.”
In March, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) began dispatching private contractors to begin shutting off water service to residents who are more than 60 days delinquent, or owe more than $150. Despite the fact that 38 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, the shut-offs began without a plan to help those who cannot pay.
In their letter, the ACLU of Michigan and NAACP LDF explain that it is illegal under international and American laws to deny poor people access to vital resources. At its core, they explain, the right to have access to water is the right to have life – and is thus a fundamental right that cannot be taken away because a person, or in the case of children, their parents, lack the ability to pay. Furthermore, they write, the poorly implemented and uneven DWSD shut-off policy violates the due process rights of residents because it often fails to provide them with adequate notice and a hearing that takes into account whether they actually have the ability to pay. “
It is simply not acceptable for thousands or even hundreds of residents of a major American city to be denied access to water,” said Sherrilyn A. Ifill , President and Director-Counsel of NAACP LDF. “Every resident of Detroit is entitled to humane treatment and respect, irrespective of their economic status. We sincerely hope, and expect, that the city will reverse its ‘turn-off’ policy and restore water to all its residents.”
In July, after national and international criticism, the City began the process of reviving a financial assistance program – the Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program – which had been investigated and criticized in 2010 by the Office of the Auditor General for a host of deficiencies. In addition, individuals with no income, arguably the most vulnerable residents, are excluded from participating in this program.
An immediate moratorium, the ACLU of Michigan and NAACP LDF urge, will allow the City to evaluate this financial assistance program and ensure that residents in need are aware of the program and are able to access resources. In addition, the DWSD should review its shut-off policies and practices to ensure that people’s due process rights are not violated.
Read the Office of the Auditor General’s 2010 memo  regarding the assistance program.
Read the full letter here: