UN reps tour Detroit neighborhoods, interview residents Oct. 19
Mass town hall meeting at Wayne Co. Community College
Press conference Oct. 20: rapporteurs denounce water shut-offs
By Diane Bukowski
October 25, 2014
DETROIT – BUS TOUR
Residents who spoke with United Nations rapporteurs Catarina de Albuquerque and Leilani Farha about water shut-offs, during their visit to Detroit last weekend, painted a devastating picture of mass inhumanity directed at the poor and mostly Black population of Detroit.
During a bus tour Oct. 19, Rochelle McCaskill invited the representatives into her east-side home, where she, three daughters, and a grandbaby live.
“I was washing my hands recently when the water went off,” she said during an interview in her living room. “My daughter looked out the window and saw a man turning our water off. She ran out to stop him. I have a note from my doctor that says I must have water, which I turned in to the water department. But they said I was still 60 days past due.”
McCaskill said she suffers from MRSA, a contagious antibiotic-resilient infection that causes sores and boils and can become life-threatening. It is becoming more common in communities, although it originated in hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and other institutions where people reside in close quarters.
McCaskill said she must bathe three times a day and frequently wash her clothing to prevent infecting her loved ones. She said she almost died from sepsis last year.
McCaskill told the rapporteurs she receives $672 a month in SSI benefits, while the rent for her tiny home is $600. “I can’t pay my water bill all the time, which is $60 to $85 a month,” she said. “I relax on weekends but hate to see Monday coming, because I know that people may be out there for the rest of the week to turn off my water, heat and lights. They need to make another category for people like me.”
Valerie Burris, who referred McCaskill for assistance, pointed out the blue mark on McCaskill’s sidewalk, that water contractors use to designate homes set for shut-offs.
“It’s like the scarlet letter of shame,” she said. “No one should have to live like this.”
Tour guides Cecily McClellan, who lives on Detroit’s near west side, and Valerie Jean, who stays nearby on the east side of Woodward, described massive housing problems in addition to the water shut-offs.
McClellan said the city is selling 6,000 foreclosed homes at once in “blight bundles,” for which the minimum bid is $1 million. The bus toured Calvert and Glynn Streets, an area of stately solidly-built homes.
“They’re knocking houses down on these streets which can be repaired,” she said, pointing to various vacant lots. “That what the Detroit Futures Project on Glynn Court is for. They refurbished one home with public money for $532,000, then sold it to a white professor for $80,000 who was moving back from Oregon.” She said many foreclosed homes are being sold to whites, and include payment forgiveness arrangements.
Valerie Jean directed the bus down Woodland, where she lives. Jean, who has three children, ran a water contractor from Homrich away when he came to her home, but said he still succeeded in shutting water off to every home within three blocks. She said she has set up a water station in her front yard, where residents can get water and food, since they can’t cook without water.
A resident in that area said the water department claims she owes $4,000. “They’ve charged me for two years I already paid,” she said. “All my bills are paid through 2012. There are 11 residents on this block, and they owe a total of $50,000 in water bills for one year alone. One of the main problems is the sewage bills. They are three times more than what we pay for water.”
During the Kwame Kilpatrick administration, suburban interests who wanted the water department pressured the city into an agreement that Detroit residents would be disproportionately charged for sewerage, because their rate of delinquent payments was higher. Published reports indicate that spikes in Detroiters’ water bills in recent months occurred because the department neglected to charge the discriminatory sewerage rate to all Detroit residents earlier.
Marian Kramer, a Highland Park resident and leader of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, along with another Highland Park resident, said that under Detroit’s bankruptcy plan to regionalize the water department, Highland Park’s system is being merged into DWSD. Now residents of Highland Park, a city within the boundaries of Detroit, get TWO water bills a month, one from each agency. They said most Highland Park residents are senior citizens living on fixed incomes who can’t afford to pay.
A resident of the Sherwood/Seven Mile neighborhood with three children said her water was shut off with no warning notice and without even a knock on the door. “They knew there were children here,” she said, pointing to kids’ chairs on her porch.
“After they shut mine off, I saw them going down the street, shutting off water,” she added. “If you’re behind on your bill, notice or not, they shut it off. In addition to the fee to shut it off, there was a fee to turn it back on. I couldn’t get an appointment for assistance for two weeks. I didn’t have the income to pay it. I was laid off from my job.”
Organizer Russ Bellant, who also lives in the neighborhood, said a total of 11 homes had their water shut off that day, and that there are 60 vacant foreclosed homes in the area. Ten were demolished within a couple of months, he said.
TOWN HALL MEETING AT WAYNE COUNTY COMMUNITY COLLEGE
Later that day, at least 600 people packed the auditorium at Wayne County Community College’s downtown campus to address the UN rapporteurs, as well as a panel of community leaders.
Monica Patrick, a host of the forum along with the coalition that brought the UN rapporteurs to Detroit, brought to audience to its feet with repeated cries of “We charge genocide!”
The sponsors of the tour and meeting included MWRO, the Michigan ACLU, the Moratorium NOW! Coalition, the People’s Water Board, AFSCME Local 207, Detroit Active and Retired Employees Association, Food and Water Watch, the Detroit School Board in Exile, Michigan Human Rights Coalition, St. Peters Ecumenical Church, and many others.
Prof. Charles Simmons, one of the panelists, said, “I am outraged by the inhumanity, by the suffering of our people. It is immense, callous and intentional. Every human being has the right to water. There must be a national and international fight in the streets. We must remember that the UN is not the final solution, because the same people who run the UN also run the corporations.”
Speaker after speaker testified about the suffering Simmons referred to.
“The principal of Denby High School opened up his school at 5 a.m. so students could come in, wash up, and wash their clothes,” said Tawanna Simpson, a member of the Detroit Board of Education in Exile. (The board has been stripped of its powers under PA 436, the Emergency Manager law.) “But now that the school has been taken over by the Educational Achievement Authority, that no longer happens.”
Gregory Price, a young man from the southwest side, said, “My neighborhood is heavily dilapidated. At least two or three people there have lost their homes because they could not pay their water bills, which were then attached to their taxes. The water bills and payment plans are monstrosities. People cannot afford to pay them.”
(See sample payment plan letter at DWSD plan.)
He said those who lose their homes go to shelters or remain in the homes with no utilities, while the state cuts off assistance to the families, who no longer have valid addresses.
Nicole Hill said her water bill is now $6,000. She testified that her water was recently shut off from May 15 to July 14, 2014, on top of previous water shut-offs in the past. Her first shut-off was in May, 2011. On October 7 of this year, she said, after a brief respite during Detroit bankruptcy proceedings, they shut it off again. She said the department is steadily cutting off others in her neighborhood as well, at one point shutting off a whole block.
“I’ve been battling the water department for two and a half years,” she said. “They’ve billed me at a previous address from 2009, although I had moved, and they keep claiming I have leaks but they haven’t found any.”
Mignon Jennings, a disabled GM worker as well as a former city worker, said her recent bill was $395 for sewerage, and $195 for water. “I’m the only one in my family,” she said, wondering how her bill could be so high. My home is in jeopardy of being taken. I hope you have a Plan B to provide assistance.”
Another woman testified that her water bill went up $600 in one month because she allowed neighbors whose water had been shut off to come to her house to get that necessity of life. Others testified about having elders and children in their homes when their water was shut off, and about being forced to go to suburban Wyandotte for water assistance since the shutdown of the Detroit’s Human Services Department and the dismantling of the Water Affordability Program.
Demeeko Williams of the Detroit Water Project said the ‘entire system is to blame for the savage water shut-offs in Detroit.
“They’ve shut down transportation, closed all our schools, fired Dad and Mom, and stolen our international waterway at Belle Isle,” he cried out. “Now Governor Snyder and Detroit EM Kevyn Orr are committing genocide by stealing the water department and regionalizing it.”
In 200 days, according to Mayor Mike Duggan and representatives from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties, they expect to have the “Great Lakes Water Authority” in place, pursuant to the Detroit bankruptcy. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes has said he plans to announce whether he will confirm the bankruptcy plan in two weeks. Any negotiation or agreement reached now with DWSD and the UN would be null and void under that plan anyway.
A young man who appeared to be about twelve years old said emphatically, “I believe that water should be free.”
Sharon Moore said her 80-year-old mother’s water bill has increased 100 percent every month, while water is running down the street from a nearby abandoned building.
A single mother with three children said she would not allow the water department to install a remote meter because of possible negative health effects, which have been broadly publicized, so they shut her water off. She said she finally allowed them to install the meter but is still plagued by payment problems.
The meters are being installed under a four-year $153 million contract with Detroit Meter Partners, comprised of Walbridge-Aldinger and Weiss Construction. Customers are forced to pay large installation fees.
Walbridge CEO John Rakolta is a top campaign supporter of Gov. John Engler, for whom his daughter also works. He has also been involved in the Detroit schools takeover.
“I went to the Water Affordability Fair the city advertised,” the single mother said. “They had a tank and four or five police officers there in case of trouble.”
Michelle McCray, a homeless woman, pointed out that the denial of water and other necessities to the poor has been happening for a long time in Detroit and elsewhere. “I’ve been homeless since 1999, and I’m in a homeless shelter,” she said. “They put you out all day without any access to water or bathrooms. The restaurants won’t let you use their bathrooms. That means all day in the hot sun with no water. This has been going on for at least 25 years.”
McCray, along with several people who wanted to speak on behalf of indigenous people, was cut short, while others were refused access to the microphone by some conference organizers, who said they wanted to focus only on water and foreclosures.
Richard Johnson El-Bey, of the Moors Coalition on Police Brutality was one of those prevented from speaking. Several other Moors were also present in the audience. Johnson El-Bey told VOD he is now homeless because he relied on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People without success. That Declaration says in part,
“Indigenous peoples have the right, without discrimination, to the improvement of their economic and social conditions, including, inter alia, in the areas of education, employment, vocational training and retraining, housing, sanitation, health and social security.
States shall take effective measures and, where appropriate, special measures to ensure continuing improvement of their economic and social conditions. Particular attention shall be paid to the rights and special needs of indigenous elders, women, youth, children and persons with disabilities.” (Entire declaration at UN Dec Rights of Indigenous Peoples.)
Showing a photo of his great-grandmother’s sister and other documents related to his heritage, he said, “I am Choctaw, Creek, and Cherokee. My people pre-date the existence of the United States of America on their land. We have a right to individual sovereignty. I’ve sued the United Nations and the United States to no avail, and I’ve gone to the City Human Rights Department with the same results.”
Johnson El-Bey said he has repeatedly been denied work despite having 44 years of experience in 17 skilled trades, because he cannot get requested documentation due to his refusal to acknowledge citizenship in the U.S. The UN Declaration says another right guaranteed is “that indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples, while recognizing the right of all peoples to be different, to consider themselves different, and to be respected as such.”
Although Johnson El-Bey has African looks, Native American tribes for many centuries accepted tens of thousands of kidnapped Africans (“slaves”) into their lands and intermarried. A large proportion of “African-Americans” today have indigenous blood.
UN RAPPORTEURS REPORT OUT AT PRESS CONFERENCE
“Detroit’s water shut-offs target the poor, vulnerable and African-Americans”
Human rights to water, sanitation and housing take precedence over financial concerns
By Diane Bukowski
October 25, 2014
DETROIT — After meeting with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and City Council members in a closed session the morning of Oct. 22, representatives of the UN Office of the High Commission for human rights roundly denounced conditions faced by Detroit’s majority population, and expressed disappointment with City plans to remedy them.
“This is a man-made Perfect Storm,” said Catarina De Albuquerque, the first UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. She is also a Professor of Law at the Universities of Brage, Coimbra and the American University’s Washington College of Law, and a senior legal advisor at the UN Prosecutor General’s office. She called the shut-offs “the most extensive” in the U.S.
“We found that 57,000 households have been shut-off this year,” she said. “They have no water to drink, bathe, flush toilets, and keep their clothes and houses clean. The city doesn’t even have data on how many households are affected [and their demographics]. People have a right to life, and not to be discriminated against and stigmatized by these shut-offs.”
She went on, “There is a disproportionate impact on low-income African-Americans in Detroit, where 80 percent of the population is African-American and 40 percent of African-Americans live below the poverty level. They are being asked to face impossible choices—to pay their rent or their water bill, to pay their medical expenses or their water bill. These are not choices we expect people to have to make in one of the richest, if not the richest, country in the world.”
She noted the U.S. has ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the right to life and security of the person, the provision of housing and water in a non-discriminatory fashion, and the elimination of racial discrimination.
“The human right to water and sanitation is explicitly recognized,” she added. “This does not mean that water has to be free. Nobody we saw asked us for free water; they just want affordable and fair bills. In many of the other 15 countries I have visited, they do want free water, but here all they want is justice and affordability.”
She said disconnection of water services is only acceptable if it can be shown that the resident can pay.
“The rich are able to pay their bills, therefore the burden should be on the authorities to make sure that happens,” she went on. “We met with the Mayor and City Officials and are aware of their measures [the 10 point plan], but these are insufficient. The Mayor does not consider chronically low-income people’s ability to pay.”
Leilani Farha is the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to non-discrimination in this area. She is also a lawyer and Executive Director of the NGO Canada Without Poverty.
“Unaffordable housing leads to constructive eviction,” Farha said. “Affordability and security of tenure are key standards, which give the feeling that you’re not going to have to leave unexpectedly. We talked to residents who don’t know how long they will be able to maintain their housing. They also have to right to non-discrimination, to information, to justice, to access to remedies and to due process. They have the right to live without fear. What impressed me the most was that people fear their kids are going to be taken away.”
The two rapporteurs laid out the following recommendations:
- The City of Detroit must restore water connections to all residences and neighborhoods.
- Stop any further disconnections to those who are unable to pay.
- We urge the city, state and federal government to adopt mandatory affordability standards.
- Special policies must be set up to ensure these measures are tailored to the needs of the people.
- The international standard for an individual’s need for water is 100 liters per person per day. [One liter is approximately .26 gallons; so the need is at least 26 gallons per person per day.]
- Authorities must make an urgent assessment of public health consequences of the water shut-offs.
- Appropriate investments must be made to determine if there is a disproportionate impact on people of color. For the homeless, the City of Detroit must take urgent steps to ensure they are housed with adequate supplies of water.
- Residents should be ensured of access to administrative and legal remedies to challenge shut-offs if they are unable to pay, the amounts of their bills, and the affordability of water in the City of Detroit.
Newscaster Paula Tutman asked the rapporteurs in an unusually strident fashion how the city would be able to afford water services if people don’t pay their bills.
“If the city does not have enough,” DeAlbuquerque said, “then there are other levels of government here. The state and the federal governments must step in to support the human right to water, sanitation and housing. The Water Department can talk with many actors throughout the world. There are cities that charge more to those who can pay, such as industry and commerce. There are solutions. You don’t need to re-invent the wheel. For each dollar investment in the right to water, you save $9 in other areas.”
The Rapporteurs cautioned that international law such as that embodied in numerous UN instruments is also about national law. They said that international human rights law should be incorporated in every policy, every program, every human rights condition. They said they will bring their findings to the attention of the U.S. representative to the UN, Susan Rice.
Regarding actions by Detroit’s Emergency Manager and the banks. profit from the city’s bankruptcy, they replied, “Having an emergency manager does not exempt them from human rights obligations. Human rights have precedence over financial and credit concerns. Human rights are primary. There is a whole group and class of people whose human rights are at stake.”
Tangela Harris asked, “How do citizens stand up when democracy is not standing up for them?” She obviously referred to Michigan Emergency Manager law, which has disenfranchised at least 51 percent of Black residents in the state. It was not clear if the UN Rapporteurs had been adequately briefed on this issue.
Through his chief of staff, Alexis Wiley, Mayor Duggan expressed disappointment and scorn towards the UN Rapporteurs’ efforts, after meeting with them for 90 minutes that morning.
“It’s disappointing but it’s kind of scary that you can have such a heavy name of the United Nations — that is such a responsibility — and to not live up to that responsibility, to come really without an interest in information,” Wiley said in published reports. “No one’s saying we’re perfect. But if you want to work together, let’s work together and make sure policy is built on facts. It’s not built on an agenda.
“As we went through each of the things they raised and made it clear they had incorrect information, they were visibly upset, and now I know it’s because they knew they had to go and change their press release. That’s what’s really disappointing is that they called this a fact-finding mission. If this is really going to be a fact-finding mission then you should actually ask for the facts.”
The UN formal press release, “Detroit’s water shut-offs target the poor, vulnerable, and African-Americans,” is available at UN Detroit water report . It includes phone numbers, email addresses, websites, and social media connections for UN Human Rights agencies.
The City’s “10-point Plan,” which does not guarantee affordability or bar shut0ffs, is at Detroit Water and Sewerage Department 10 point Plan. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes declared this plan adequate and said he had no power to ensure affordable water anyway. He is expected to announce his decision on confirmation of the bankruptcy Plan of Adjustment, which includes the elimination of the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department, and its replacement by the regional Great Lakes Water Authority, next week.