I’m DeMeeko Sean Williams. I’m the chief director of Hydrate Detroit. We are a 501(c)(3) water rights organization that helps people with emergency water, consultation, advocacy, and restoration of water services to the homes of many Detroiters in the City of Detroit.
Interviewer: Thank you. That’s the first time I’ve heard about your middle name right there. All right, Sean. We’re here to really talk about the issue of water and the water crisis going on in Detroit. Can you maybe just tell us a little bit about really what’s happening, just introduce us to the scope or the nature of the problem?
Describing The Water Crisis
Meeko: Well, I’m pretty sure that everyone knows about the great American city that’s Detroit. You know how Detroit is this place of innovation. It’s a place of hustle and grit, but it’s also a place where we’ve been fighting so much for our survival as residents. Been through a lot, we just got out of bankruptcy. We’ve just got out of certain situations. They say Detroit is supposed to get better, but in my own personal opinion, I don’t see that as much because we’re dealing with a water crisis, and that water crisis is literally flushing out people from the City of Detroit.
When you look at Detroit and look at the population, you look at the people, but you also look at their income level. It’s been many discussions of what to do with the City of Detroit, but we have people that are still here, people that are still working and still bringing in some type of income to make it however they could. This city’s not so well-off residents are the ones that are suffering at the behest of these new policies.
Interviewer: You mentioned the water crisis. What is the water crisis?
Meeko: Well, the water crisis is when you have a large group of residents that have been shut off for enormous amounts of debt that they don’t have the money. They simply don’t have the money to pay. They want to pay it down, they want to pay it off, they want to get rid of it, but they cannot because they are stuck under circumstances such as other necessities, such as other utilities. They have the basic necessities.
Most people that are living from check to check, or living off of the little check that they have and trying to make do with their life is just not working with the new deal of going about things. We mentioned the water crisis. We have a water shutoff crisis that has been happening throughout 2014 to now. It has hit over 150,000 residents or more.
There haven’t been really any opportunities for people to settle their debts or settle their difference because this notion that people aren’t paying because they believe water is free and other rhetoric that has gone around, it makes it difficult to get a deal or to get at least some type of settlement.
The water crisis, most people do not have the necessary resources to pay. It’s been said, if you pay, you go to the river and get a bucket, but I just feel like that’s cruel, inhumane, and pretty much downright uncompassionate to tell citizens such. We’re trying to do whatever we can with the water crisis, so residents, businesses, and certain groups and people to come together to help stop the water crisis in the City of Detroit.
The (In)Appropriate Price of Water
Interviewer: Just to put this into some perspective, because for this project, we’ve also been doing interviews with a lot of both urban residents, as well as suburban residents of the city. A lot of suburban residents who are not at all familiar with the water shutoff crisis going on often tend to think that water bills are, well, they’re not really that much. They’re only about $100, $150 every three months.
Meeko: Yes, that’s that much. It’s unreal. It’s unreal to even pay $100 for water anyway. Now, we used to pay every three months. I remember my grandmother receiving water bills, and they were less than $20, $30. It wasn’t even that much to handle. We used to go down to the water company, Downtown Detroit, and she would pay their bill and everything will be fine. Now, the bills come every month, and they’re rising over $100. Some people pay $150 a month. It is not from the usage. It’s not even for so much as consumption.
Interviewer: Where’s the problem?
Meeko: Well, basically from rate hikes. We’ve been having water rate hikes for over 10 years, and they’re unexplained. We haven’t seen any results or any improvements from this rate hike. We’ve just been told to pay more and more and more, and we have less. We’re bringing in less. Also, the commodification of water in a city where the poverty is over 60%, you can’t afford water, not even so much as $100 bill.
For those that can afford the water bill, it’s going high to where you have to call in to figure out exactly what’s going on here, why is my bill so high? They can’t tell you even basic information so that you can–if you’re a person that’s environmentally conscious and want to conserve your water, they won’t tell you how much of the survey. They won’t tell you how much water that you’re using and what to do to stop those water usages. Again, there’s many people paying a price that they don’t even know if it’s even so, or it’s just paying a price to compensate for something else that we know we can’t afford.
Interviewer: Most of the people who help the clients that Hydrate works with, what is the range of water bills looks like, the outstanding water bill?
Outstanding water bills could go from $1,500, all the way up to $9,000. My recent water bill working with a client is $18,000. I was able to get it cut to $5,000.
The owner still has everything that they have to pay, but at least $5,000, I could try to bargain and try to negotiate with that, versus $18,000 where I’m like, “Yo, we don’t have this money.” I’ve seen even worse like the average water bill of debt will be up to $3,400.
Rationale(s) for Rising Water Cost
Interviewer: Meeko, we were talking about some of those outstanding bills and some of them are just crazy. Even $1,500 is huge. $9,000 is even worse. I guess a natural question that a lot of people would tend to ask is how does it get to be that high?
Meeko: My colleagues ask the same things. They’re not even called. They’re not given a letter. They’re not told. “Well, Mrs. Bond, you pay this much a month, but your water bill shows that your usage is high. What’s going on?” They don’t send technicians out to do the assessments. What I thought was, with DWSD, at least tries to figure out what’s the problem, what the root cause. They’re pretty much inept to- they’re not thoroughly 100% clear and they’re also not on their policies when it comes to assessing homes, pipes and infrastructure.
I basically had to go get my volunteer plumber who can do all the work that DWSD is supposed to be doing but he doesn’t have access to turn the water on and off. They do.
Interviewer: No one called them to say, “Hey maybe have a week somewhere or maybe we should get that adjust,” or not even saying that, “Mrs. What’s-your-name you’ve got a $3,000 bill over here. We’re going to shut it down for a while or would you like to tell us a little bit about why it’s so huge?”
Meeko: No, absolutely not, because there are certain people who may have accidents. Accidents are when you’re pipes burst or you have a leak that just goes wherever. You may not be aware that you have leaks. You may not afford a plumber to help you with those leaks and challenges. The problem is that DWSD will hope that the house is abandoned, that they can get whatever money they can get, and that you don’t pitch a nerve or however, you know I’m saying, to complain about your water bill. When many people have been trying to wait for their home energy grants to come so they can weatherize their home, they can get new pipes, they can get new infrastructure, and that never comes.
DWSD, when they send a big high bill and you’re calling, you’re not being told valuable, important information. By the time you are told you’re like, “Well, how did this happen? Can you show me?” They’ll give printouts of your meter readings. They even do direct reads every month, but the problem is that if you’re not understanding of how much water that you use and you don’t have the resources to get a plumber, or to get things fixed, then that bill is going to be your worst enemy.
Interviewer: Do you have clients who believe that they have been paying the water bill properly all this time or maybe paying their landlords, but then they later find out that those payments have not been made on time?
Meeko: Yes, absolutely. We get people that get into new housing but were not sure how they arrange because Hydrate Detroit doesn’t get into those types of matters. We don’t get into landlord-tenant matters but we can provide advice on how to deal with your landlord. There is a situation of slumlords, I am very much against slumlords. I have a zero-tolerance policy. If you are in a home where you’ve been paying and the water bill is not being taken care of, but it’s not in your name, then you need to move out on the double.
If the water bill is in your name but you’re living in a slumlord house, we have to go through extra channels and extra things in order to keep out of that situation, but most definitely the water department doesn’t have a register or a roster who owns these properties and who’s really responsible. The last I checked, the landlord is supposed to pay water and heat. The water and heat is supposed to be free in all rental places. They changed this a couple of years ago that a tenant must be held responsible.
I’ve been working with a group trying to change that law because that is not correct as to make tenants pay for a rental property where they got to pay water, they got to pay DTE. That’s not for paying DTE, but we have to make sure heat and the water is accessible for each in Detroit.
Interviewer: What a lot of people also don’t necessarily realize is that for people who actually own the property themselves, they’ll include water bills and if they’re not able to pay it, it actually gets added onto their property taxes, right?
Meeko: Yes, which is supposed to be a lien and the lien, most people will go for that because they believe they could pay it off with their property taxes and they will all be forgiven. It’s not so much now anymore, because the water department and the Treasurer’s Office of the county has split. Now they have water bills as one and property taxes as one. They’re not together anymore. You’re delinquent on your water bills, you’re going to be most likely be delinquent on your taxes. If you’re delinquent on your taxes, you’re most definitely going to be delinquent to your water bill.
Interviewer: Right. Do you have many clients or have you had clients in the past who’ve been in danger of losing their homes and that they’ve lived in for–
Meeko: Yes, absolutely. Having one now that’s in danger in losing her home because she hasn’t paid her property taxes and now she can’t get her water fixed because of those problems with taxes. We have a lot of people that have housing. They have different agreements. Some of them are with a parent’s home or the family home. Sometimes you can’t keep up the family home, but you’ll try to keep it in the best interest or whatever. Many people they would rather prefer to stay at their homes and try to become homeowners. It is difficult to be a homeowner in the city of Detroit knowing that you have DTE Energy bills, water bill, tax bill, and it all can go over your head so quick if you don’t stay on top of it.
Most people, they’re not in a position to handle this because they don’t have the income to sustain. When you don’t have the income to sustain, you basically have anything that you’re going to try to do to survive. I’ve seen folks come up with a payment plan, monies that I’ve– I’m like, “How did you do that?” [chuckles] It’s basically trying to determine a need and how you can satisfy that need. As an organization, we definitely can help clients that they simply don’t have $1,000. They don’t have $2,000, let alone $9,000 and we can at least try to fight to get a lower and better arranged deal.
Water as Commodity
Interviewer: Sometime back you mentioned a phrase, “The commodification of water.” Could you elaborate a little bit on that. What did you mean by the commodification of water and how do you see that really happening right here in Detroit?
Meeko: We have a saying here in Hydrate Detroit that the price isn’t right.
Meeko: The price ain’t right.
Interviewer: Yes, like the TV show, but just the opposite part.
Meeko: I watch a lot of shows where they negotiate, like mostly Pawn Stars or something like that. Basically, we’re trying to get the best deal that our clients can afford and definitely restore the water service, or at least get into a new plan so they don’t have they don’t have the water turned off. They’re basically, let’s-make-a-deal type of negotiations where we offer “this much,” we’ll pay “this much” and cover it, if they’re willing to make the deal. Sometimes it’s a fight. Sometimes we have to make public battles out of this, but it’s winning and it’s rewarding, because we’re at least able to get deals and settlements that we were unable otherwise, back in 2014.
Where we’re at now is that people can now reach out to us and we will help them. We don’t turn our clients away. They could be renters, they can be folks that just got into homes and just got screwed, and may need advice. We at least try to advise and consult everyone that comes through our lines.
Interviewer: I’m curious, do you keep track of– once you’ve been able to get a deal for someone, do you keep track of whether this person is able to keep up with subsequent payments?
Meeko: Some of them, we make determinations if they’re able to keep up. We give them that disclaimer that we can help with your down payment but anything else after that, you are responsible for keeping up with this payment arrangement. Of course, I have to go through these hard questions as such in order to assure them that they’re going to be responsible and we make sure that the clients that we do take care of, we could at least look out from them, we check up on them every other month to make sure that they’re okay, that they’re doing fine.
Some of them were able to climb up out of debt, however, in this situation, we have a high number of people that over– 50% or more towards debt and they can’t– they’re sinking. They can’t get out. Some of them that were– we don’t deal with people that have over $100, $200 worth of debt because that could easily be worked out as I’ve cited before. If it goes over $600 or more, then that’s basically our situation. If it goes to $2,000, $3,000, then you’re in the danger zone. We have color-coded shades for people.
Interviewer: Right. I guess what proportion of your clients are seniors, or caregivers with family, or single people? I wonder if you’ve tracked that.
Meeko: Mostly 60% is seniors. I’d say 30% is families with small children and about 20% are just regular residents. They were just calling around for help, Wayne Metro WRAP or the other organizations that help with– so that these have turned them away. They were able to find us and they were just looking for help. It depends on the story. It depends on what the situation is and the information we collect at the Water and Sewage Department. We service families with small children, senior citizens and disabled citizens, veterans that are returning or so, and they may have gotten into a house or so. My first priorities are the women and children.
The Trauma of Shutoffs
Interviewer: Having your water shut off is, I think, incredibly traumatic. I think there’s a lot of stigma associated with that, right? A lot of people we’ve spoken with, for instance, told us how it feels like you’ve failed your children and your family personally. In that situation, how do people get in touch with you? Maybe you could tell us a little bit about how you engage or talk with some social people who are dealing with these issues, because it’s difficult.
Meeko: It is very difficult. You’re at the mercy of someone who will listen to you, someone that has compassion, that can understand where you’re coming from. One of the biggest tenets of Hydrate Detroit is love, empathy, and compassion. That is our mission statement, and that is our goal. Of course, when people are calling, they may be stressed out. They may have been up all weekend, up all night, trying to figure out what to do. Water shutoff is coming, usually two, three days or so before, and they’re trying to call to get help to at least stop it or prevent it from happening.
Most people have their water shut off already and they’ve been living and they’ve just been calling, they haven’t been able to find anywhere, so they’ve been running around until they got to Hydrate Detroit, so they call. I answer the phone and I definitely do what I can to assess the situation. We have at least about five-minutes consultation time. Within that five-minute consultation time, I should already know what you’re calling about, what you need help with, how much is your total bill, and what’s your water bill account number. Fill out the application online and then we’ll get back to you as soon as time permits.
When we do, we usually get the information from the Water and Sewage Department about the bill, about the account, and what they need to do to stop the water shutoff. The number one thing is outreach, so we’re definitely improving in outreach efforts to make sure everyone knows our number, at least email, for information. They know how to get in touch with us. They should know who I am, who my partner is. They should also know what we do and that they should not be afraid to call or at least ask questions or inquire.
With me, I get on the phone. It has to be me. I’ve told all my team that I can’t let anyone– I can’t let volunteers work the phones because they have to have that open connection. We have to establish, at least a relationship before we go any further because I would know who it is on the other end of the phone, but that the person on the other end of the phone might have needed me more than they ever know.
We don’t have any funders. We don’t have bosses over us, so we can get down to business and we can ask the tough questions that others are afraid to ask…like you just said, people are feeling like they failed [because of their water shutoff crisis]. They feel like they’ve done everything they could and they’re just sinking and there’s no way out.
Closed mouths don’t get fed is what I tell a lot of residents. If you hadn’t said anything, you wouldn’t have gotten me, and we wouldn’t be talking about this, and then if I feel compelled that we can get that answered today. We usually do get it answered by same day or the next day or so. At least takes about three to five business days.
Interviewer: Answer from DWSD?
Meeko: Answer from DWSD and to do our investigation. A lot of the water department doesn’t investigate how people get their water shut off or they don’t investigate why these accounts end up towards a possible criteria for shutoff. I do those investigations. I make the home visits. I meet with the clients. I also do my observations and I’m able to make recommendations of what we can do to solve or settle this situation.
It goes into a lot of, you’ve got to learn to handle people’s lives. You got to learn to listen. You have to be firm but fair. You have to be firm but fair, because I can’t let people get over around me or get over on my team, because they work so hard and trying to do whatever they can to help people. Definitely you have to make sure that when you get all the information, that you are the best advocate, that they trust you to advocate. You have to do whatever you can to uphold the integrity and dignity of the client no matter who they are.
A “Regular guy” Helping Regular People
Interviewer: Meeko, tell us a little bit about how it all got started. 2013 was really when the first mass shut off started, it really started picking up steam in 2014. How did you get involved in all of this?
Meeko: Well, I’m just a normal regular guy, just living here in the city of Detroit, active with my neighbors, active with my community. What happened is that, I had been already involved with city business, fighting against emergency managers, constant agreements, bankruptcy and possible all types of movement, the city was on the brink of insolvency. I got involved as a resident just to try to voice my opinion and to come up with solutions and to start whatever that was happening.
Then I was laying on my mother’s couch and I fell asleep and when I woke up, I happened to see the news and the news report said that the Detroit water shut offs, they were shutting off mass numbers of homes to people in the city of Detroit, but these businesses and corporations were the most debtors. At the time I said, “Why are they shutting people’s water off if the companies owe this much money?” These are like sports stadiums, they’re all own like hundreds and thousands of dollars and residents that only owe a small fraction of that.
I said, “We can’t rip the city of its water.” What I did was, I organized lots of friends. I called all the commissioners, the waterboard commissioners, my city council person, all the city council people including the mayor and I tried to get meetings and such, but it wasn’t working because nobody would hear me. I started going along certain activist groups and they were having strategy sessions and such like that.
At this time, I am like, I’m not an activist, but I’m currently getting involved in different things. I was a group member of Detroit Resisting Emergency Management and in that group, we have been already talking about water shutoffs and such to that nature. When I was going along with these people and such, I just felt like we were just strategizing. Nothing was getting done. We weren’t getting out of the streets.
I decided that I would get with a group of my friends and we started the Detroit Water Brigade. This was actually a group of people who just wanted to deliver water to people who were shut off. We didn’t know exactly what was happening back then in 2014, and they were just going to shut off all the water in the city of Detroit and folks were going to be in need.
We raised donations, cases of water to be delivered to families in the city of Detroit. I think that summer, that first 30 days, we raised like $30,000 and that all went on to people’s water bills to save them in such a thin nature. We tried the best we knew how and that’s why Detroit came into fruition because we wanted to get deeper into the water struggle, but we definitely wanted to teach water conservation, water purification, and also other educational aspects of water, health, and environmental education.
Interviewer: Detroit Water Brigade, you were definitely one of, I think, the first two groups helping people deliver water. What were you seeing on the ground? I guess I’m asking you to reflect and think back on some of the stories that you were hearing at that point, that first year.
It was just devastation, people were getting their water shut off, people were afraid of having their water shut off, they didn’t know what to do. I was one of the first people that advocated for a water affordability back in 2014, that was held at Cobo Hall. Over 1,500 people showed up and showed out of the 5,000. I just said, “Thank the Lord.” Because I needed people to know that we went through all this trouble. There is help; come on down. Some of those people got waivers, they even got two-week grace periods, they come into the water department and such and that was all from the advocacy of community groups, activists and with the world, they made that move.
That was one of the first things I said coming into this was that, we need a day or a few days where people could come down and settle their situations in private and that they can work out at least getting on a plan. Well, at that time, it was a lot of misinformation, a lot of propaganda, there’s even so much as our former city councilwoman that was saying, if you don’t pay your water bill, or if you can’t afford to pay your water bill then you should go down to the Detroit River and get a bucket.
That was one of the most racially insensitive things I’ve ever heard in my life living in the city of Detroit. I remember back then we were running up on people whose houses were in dire straits because they had the water out for either weeks, for months and also, this is where I ran into Nicole Hill and I first met her at a strategy session and she said that she hadn’t had any water in six weeks. I asked her, “What can I do to help you? This is unacceptable.”
We have cases of water coming in from people around the world, so I definitely want to do–That’s why we came up with the Share Water Program so that we share water, we share love, and we share it with everyone who was affected. When I encountered Miss Nicole Hill, that was probably one of the first experiences I had with someone that actually had their water shut off.
The stench that goes in from your food rotting in your refrigerator, that’s probably one of the worst stenches I’ll never be able to get out [of my mind], even talking to you now. The floors were sticky, the kids don’t have anywhere to wash, and you’re stuck under a $5,000 water bill that you can’t get out of that was already clicked upon you when you first got into this property.
Basically, dealing with those elements there, you try to fight and become our best advocate and such, but the problems were too great because not just her, there’s probably 2,000 other people that are in her situation, dealing with this right now as I speak.
Then back in 2014, you had not so many controls as we do now, you had bills pay over computer, phones, kiosks, we didn’t have those measures. The only way you had to pay your bill was to come down to the water department, get on a payment plan, and agree to some 12 to 24-month deal where it wasn’t even feasible or affordable, but we had to fight to make sure that they’re reasonable and forth, which they still aren’t. The big thing that I remember is the Netroots Nation March, back in 2014. Detroit Water Brigade, we were featured in that conference.
To see the people that were there, I just felt like that was my first time learning the political hanky-panky around water issues and water conservation because to learn that people didn’t understand why is Detroit dealing with this and what’s going on here, you know what I’m saying? But to not have compassion or to not care, meaning that you see Detroit is having a bad water shutoff situation, there should be a pot and that pot was only filled by certain entities of the city, but it was not overflowed or filled by many of the components that we needed in order to help a large mass number of people get out of water hell.
Interviewer: That was 2014 and we’re in 2019 right now. Did you think that it would continue for that many years?
Meeko: No. I think about that myself each and every day. It’s been five years, stuff that usually takes a year or at least takes the summer, is taking about five years to achieve and the problem is bigger than just “pay yo effing bill.” It’s not even so much as the part of the “effing bill,” but it’s concerning around the ability, around the policy, and around some of the rules and regulations of “pay yo effing bill.”
Interviewer: Almost seems like the roadblocks are there on purpose.
Meeko: They are and what I mean by on purpose is you’re making it so much hard for people that they are just going to say, “Hey, I’m going to walk away, wash my hands clean, I’m just going to go,” not knowing that their water bill travels wherever they will, because they made it so much now that they can put social security number just like they do in cable and other utilities, but to have a $1,500 dollar water bill chasing around the country, that’s just unacceptable.
I’m saying you’re literally putting me into further financial ruin because I’m not going to pay the water bill if I have my medications to worry about. I’m not going to pay the water bill if I need food in my house. I’m not going to pay the water bill, water bills are the last in my mind. If I need clothes, or I need to feed my kids or I need to do for my kids, I don’t give a damn about the water bill, I just give a damn about my survival, that’s what the normal thinking is in city of Detroit.
It’s not even so much as to– People are responsible, but how much can you bear when you try and juggle everything? Just like we said earlier, people feel like they’re familiar. That’s true because most people are the breadwinners, they’re former households, they used to work, they’ve never been in this situation. Now we’re in a recession. We’re dealing with economic hard times and that’s affected everybody. It even affects those that could pay their water bill and some people may front like they can pay the water bill, but they’re suffering just like you and me have to.
Interviewer: Mr. Brown of DWSD says that he empathizes with the people affected by water shutoffs, but that the larger problem is systemic poverty in the city of Detroit and you can’t hold DWSD responsible for poverty in that large scale. How would you respond to that?
Meeko: I don’t respond to that because he doesn’t know struggle. He doesn’t know what it’s like to be poor and have to live on to your last or to whatever the cards you have been dealt with. He’s never had to deal with struggle to where, he’s trying to make on the water bill and utility bill, and he only has this much amount of money, so he has to try to bargain with whomever. Gary Brown is not a part of Detroit. Let’s just say this, he’s a part of an entity that is further helping on conquering Detroit.
He’s hoping whatever pennies they can get out of those crumbs that will satisfy him for his next job opportunity, that’s all it is. I push back against all notions of systemic poverty because people have been struggling for a very long time and there has been no compassion, there has been no let-up. There’s also been no strategy or solution to improve the lives of people dealing with poverty in the city of Detroit. The first issue you have is your DTE bill and they [government] rise up rates drastically, and you get literally nothing but you have to be on something.
The water is another thing you didn’t have payment plans, well before you did, but they weren’t as much used as they are now. Now, we’re fighting for grace period, we’re fighting for certain protections around payment plans and the shutoffs. Also, with Mr. Brown, I don’t think he knows anything about systemic poverty and how it affects him. This man got rich off the city of Detroit, despite the politics, despite the business of it all, he’s nothing more than a rat just looking for new cheese.
As I said before, Gary Brown doesn’t know struggle, because it shows every meeting that we have in the public comments on how people cannot afford to pay their water bills, he won’t even get up to help to calculate water bills by income. He’s spoken against the water affordability plan, he’s spoken against water amnesty, he’s spoken even so much as to reversing the 10/30/50 plan and to giving deals of 50% to 70% off in order for people to pay that price.
He maintains that we’re running the robust compassionate program, but I don’t see anything compassionate, where you don’t zero out people. I don’t see anything compassionate or robust when people are falling off the payment plans that you set.
I don’t see anything improving, where there’s over 150,000 people that are on 50% payment plans that are one payment away from missing to be back on shut off status all over again.
Interviewer: On that note, the reason Waterboard commissioners meeting, you were there and we were there also just recording the events and how the commissioners were responding to the questions that were raised. They were talking about the rate hikes over there as well. What was your impression of how they responded to the questions that people were throwing out at them?
Meeko: Because we’ve been through this, we go through this every year. After you see it, after a couple of years, you already get used to it. We had a meeting two months prior. That was supposed to be a public session, a public conversation about the rate hikes and barely anybody attended. Until that meeting we were at, that was the rate hike meeting, and they approved the rates. They approved the rates, even when people said no, even when people said this is too high, even when people said this is not affordable, you’re not dealing with the tenets of affordability, they still raised the rates.
Then the next week, it seems like they announced a $500 million bond that they just found or they received for a new water infrastructure. I’ve looked at that and was like, where’s the $537 million that was promised for water affordability? The bonds and such that could have paid back their money that was taken for interest rate-wise. That’s where we differ because that last meeting, I walk in the door and Gary Brown is literally barking at people. I don’t know if he had a bad day, if he come out bad meeting or so but he was not happy.
Then when I got up there to speak, and I said that, “Stop asking us for more money when you don’t provide us service and such.” Then he got into screaming. This, this, then other and, “Meeko, you use my staff every day to get to your clients. We help you the best we can,” and he’s looking for admiration or validation, and I will not do– that’s what he’s dying for and I will not give them the satisfaction because until you do right by me, until you do right by the people of the city of Detroit, you will receive no praise of admiration until you do what the hell I tell you to do, and that is to bring us affordable water at a price we all can pay.
Current Direction of Hydrate Detroit
Interviewer: Tell us a little bit about some of the current work and programs and just really what’s on the goals right now, the agenda, I guess for Hydrate.
Meeko: Right now, we’re currently maintaining our work in the field. The number one thing is making sure those phone lines are always open and accessible, 24/7. The second thing is actually trying to do whatever we can to push water relief amnesty.That’s been the number one goal of this organization, is to get that policy in place. The next thing is, definitely, making sure water is affordable throughout the whole country. I’ve been in conversation with a few city leaders and a few people that I’ve been in contact with, going to some symposiums, water conferences and such. I’m even talking with people who are calling me, asking for my advice and expertise and I said, “I’m just a normal regular guy, I don’t really know much about water.” But I do know about municipal water systems and how they are supposed to work and such.
That’s why I’m focused on challenging the business of DWSD first and to make sure that anything, any policy or any recommendation that is made, it has to fit in line with the business practices of Detroit Water and Sewage Department, but now it’s just that particular entity for all Water and Sewage Departments around the country because water affordability is becoming a hot topic across the country. The water bill is going up with no explanation and we deserve a fair price that we can pay that is affordable.
Interviewer: I find it strange sometimes how your DWSD is a public entity and yet, in this conversation, you yourself actually mentioned, talking about the business practices of DWSD and you’re not the only one, a lot of people who we talk to or have interviewed both organizers as well as residents, they often talk about how this doesn’t gel with the business model. I often wonder, well, why are we even talking about the business model over here because this is technically not supposed to be a business organization?
Meeko: You know what? It’s a very good question because people usually think that the water company is the same as the energy company, it’s the same as the phone company. They’re supposed to have rules and regulations, they’re supposed to at least work with you. The water department doesn’t have oversight. Now, that’s where I’m coming into in providing that oversight and advocating for a community board–advisory board of people that are supervising the Water and Sewage Department. Just like there’s an advisory board over the police, just like there’s an advisory board over city council and citizens district councils. We need to make sure that public oversight and accountability is number one at this juncture. You mentioned business models, the business model of DWSD where, yes, it’s supposed to be you miss 60 to 90 days of payment, you’re supposed to be shut off, but they don’t always follow by their policies and practices.
There is supposed to be a grace period, if there is a concern of payment issues or you lose your job or whatever. There is supposed to be an opportunity for you to enter into something and you’re supposed to be protected. There’s supposed to be subsidized water for senior citizens, there’s supposed to be a rate plan for those that are there for seniors. There has not been any business model that has been satisfactory to the city of Detroit. It has gone unchecked and I believe that’s why they brought Mr. Brown in to hone in on those business practices and those models and it still is failing and it’s still lacking in actual accurate satisfactory.
Interviewer: No, I’m with you on the failings of the institution overall, but I just keep wondering that, when we keep thinking of these institutions like businesses, we tend to expect the bottom line to matter more than human costs and it shouldn’t.
Meeko: When you have mismanagement, miscalculation, errors, too many, too many errors and any activist and community organizer will tell you that the business practices are our model. They’re not a model that we want to continue with anymore, but if you’re influenced to get ideas, if you’re gullible enough to believe what may have happened in other cities, Detroit is similarly looking like New Orleans. New Orleans had to shut off a large number of people after Hurricane Katrina, then they institute reinstatement fees which are between $45 to $95. I have never seen this happen.
When I was on the Blue Ribbon panel back in 2015, most of my concerns were about the business model of the DWSD and how they were operating and then these policy recommendations that they were giving, 11-month budget billing, we’re not supposed to be building in winter, we’re not supposed to be shut off in the winter or in extreme temperatures. Flex Pay, if a person has paid, then that’s supposed to count towards their bill. Let’s say if I pay $200 over what was already, that’s supposed to be accounted towards my bill and nothing’s supposed to happen to me as long as my business is in good standing.
Different things that are supposed to make our lives easier, we’re supposed to have an app that’s on our phones to show our water conservation and to be more mindful of that so that we don’t waste water. There has not been any of those. There’s just been “pay your bill, don’t worry about what we’re doing, we’re adding all these new things and such, but as long as you pay your bill, just shut up and take it and just be satisfied if you have water.” That’s not an attitude I like and that’s not an attitude im going to tolerate.
More on Accountability and Affordability
Interviewer: Two words, I guess, I’m hearing a lot from you are, accountability and affordability. Those are the two major cornerstones of what I’m hearing from you. Is that correct?
Meeko: Accountability is basically holding those responsible, the water department is supposed to be held responsible and always supposed to be held accountable. That’s all right. We have a right as citizens, we have a right as residents and we have a right as community to hold the water department accountable and to hold it responsible for things that are on their end.
Water bills are supposed to be affordable. So is energy, so is home and everything else. But I want to see more efforts at making sure it is a fair price that we all can pay because we talk about water affordability all the time, especially with the suburbs, They’re saying, “You just don’t want to pay your water bill, just pay your water bill.” That’s not true, that’s never been true. We wanted a price that we all could afford to pay…
And we wanted every three months, under $100, not even so much as $60, $70. That’s what the rate is now and people can’t afford that. I never thought water should be $60, $70 a month. You can’t tell me anything of commodification, the rising, price rise, you can’t tell me anything that’s contributing to the price of water rising up and why we need to justify these rates.
Detailing Detroit’s Water Bills
Interviewer: Two major components on the bill. A few weeks ago, we did a series of listening sessions in Brightmoore, we also did focus groups with some seniors at St. Pat Senior Center. A couple of components on the bill that really across the board these people we spoke to keep coming back to are the switch fees and the drainage charges.
Meeko: Yes, that is true. That is the biggest component on the bill that makes the water bill astronomically high. Now, here’s what people don’t understand, the water is one flat fee, you just pay the water bill. Everybody can just pay, it’s always going to be a lower price. The sewerage and the drainage fees, they were all combined as one bill, you pay that as one whole price.
What happened is that, they took the sewerage and the drainage, they broke them up, established them as separate fees and then doubled down on those fees. Sewerage has always been the biggest component. I’m asking questions as to how much it costs to flush the toilet. How much does it cost to take a dump? No one’s telling me how much it costs, 5 cents to flush, 10 to flush, 25 cents to flush.
Drainage, this is a service already provided by the water department. They are correct when they said, we have paid this since the ’70s. That is correctly, we always paid for cleaning, processing and treatment. That is already supposed to be involved in the equation. When you come back and tell me that the sewerage fees went up, so is drainage and no explanation why, I’m starting to wonder what type of racket is this.
Then you’re also telling me that the drainage fees are going up, but there’s been no calculated method that you’ve been able to give to me, there’s been no formula and there also has been no explanation as to impervious acreage versus pervious. The average Detroit citizen wouldn’t even know that. You can tell them that you’re collecting rainwater off of their driveways and their hard services. If this water is leaking from the driveway on to the street and it’s going into the drain, we pay for that, but do we pay for the other water that’s filling up at the middle of the street, causing water whirls and floods?
They’re not telling you that. We have to press for more accountability.
Whatever they ask you, all we need is accountability. It’s that someone needs to be held responsible and needs to explain themselves to the residents. They also need to answer certain questions that we have, versus barking at us, telling us, “This is the way it’s going to be,” and then trying to make presentations to unsuspecting residents who are already seeing that this is a scam.
The drainage fees are nothing but a scam, the sewerage and this whole operation that they’ve got going, it’s at the behest of poor residents paying more than the corporate citizens. They’re actually not people but they’re actually entities who are supposed to pay. They’re not supposed to receive free water in the city of Detroit. Corporations get free water and we just get the tax.
Meeko: [laughter] It’s crazy.
Hope for the future?
Interviewer: Where do you see this headed? We talked earlier for instance, that it’s already been five years, water shutoffs are still going on, although they are at a lower rate compared to earlier.
Meeko: I don’t believe that. I don’t believe they’re at a lower rate, they’re just not reported and investigated early. You have groups like we the people of Detroit and “Good Jobs Now” and such, and they’re doing the work of combining water, housing and also financial members. When you combine those data tables together, you’re going to see that the water situation is going to get worse, and it’s only getting worse.
We thought that a one-time donation of cooperatives was going to pay for all of our bills, it has not. We thought that the WRAP program, the Water Residential Assistance Program was going to cover, it did not. We thought that Paul was going to step in, that’s the region’s provider in utility help, and they have not, because they’re not set up to handle those type of situations.
You have us, the groups on the ground, groups like Hydrate and such. We can’t continue to keep the burden on us and have the shift of responsibility fall on us. It has to be something done at the bigger level; the mayor, the governor, our own member is going to have to step in. Detroit is one of the most poor cities, 60% abject poverty. We’re not saying that we want free water, we never said that. That’s what the elite say, that’s what the news keep transmitting, is that all we want is free water, we don’t want to pay for it. Let me tell you something, we have spiritual connection with water, we live off the great lakes.
This is why people believe water should be free, because when you live off the great lakes and it provides us as the source, then we should get a special accountability rate. We should get a subsidized rate for water. I think it should be at least about a fair price, about $50 or $60 a month. We pay over $70, that’s too much. But I would say cap it at $50 a month, same as they do to energy and such.
Poignant Water Stories
Interviewer: To close out, can you maybe tell us a story or recount an episode that either really inspired you or moved you, or maybe just something that broke your heart?
Meeko: I have seen some things, dealing with this water crisis. Two of my clients passed away; Miss. Verya Coleman, she was a 77-year-old lady, and she was full of fire and energy, and she was definitely giving it to some of those evildoers who claim to be our city officials. She made them have a heart. She went without water for two years, she was collecting rainwater from her garbage can. She was living in a land bank house and it just wasn’t feasible for her to even live there because it was in the dead of winter.
We worked for like a year or so trying to get her out of her house, trying to get the water bill forgiven. They wouldn’t forgive the water bill because it was under someone else’s name who was out of state. She ended up making the news, she made the front page, and it broke the whole internet’s heart over Christmas that we have our seniors with the water shut off with no food and no adequate resources, and this is how we treat our seniors. She got a brand new house, she got a brand new apartment, a brand new dwelling from Southwest Solutions, and she’s been living her best life in downtown Detroit. The problem was she passed away this past May from medical complications, and I believe it’s from the water shutoffs.
Two years of not having adequate water, the bottled water won’t count. I even said that we would stop delivering bottled water because we were not knowing the contributions to the problem of privatization. We would make sure that we would do whatever we can to the water services on, but also make sure that we can fight whatever that was to come.
Another story of mine was a client, Mrs. Dakota Booker. She was 54 years old, and she fought for everything that she worked hard for. She stayed in the people’s offices when it came to her section eight,when it came to her benefits. She tried to make sure everything was in tip-top shape, doing what she was supposed to do. She died from liver issues. I can’t pronounce the name of her condition, but she died because she was on a colostomy bag, and she was having issues.
Interviewer: She was on a what?
Meeko: She was on a colostomy bag, but Mrs. Dakota Booker, she was also one of those go-getters, once she gets herself together, she would be in the people’s offices, at the DHS office, at the FIA office doing whatever she could to keep up on her and it’s just stressful.
She lost her job and things got a little hard. What happens when you lose income? Everything can just fire out of control real quick, and water shutoffs are like imminent danger. When she got her water shut off, we worked hard to help raise money for her to get her water turned back on. We delivered water for her and took care of her puppy. I had a friend that was working on an organization that provided dog food and such to residents who couldn’t afford it. Those two stories were what made me want to fight even harder because it could be any one of us.
Interviewer: It could.
Meeko: My mom was one of those people who always went through charity, always went through different services and such to get help, and this is what these services are supposed to be for people that can’t get any help or so and that’s what these support services are supposed to do, it’s to help people. Also, have a heart to care for people because that could well be one of our people and we’re giving them whatever we can to help, so we need to give that same Detroit love back to those that are definitely in need.
I have plenty other stories. The worst that really made me think like we really need to do something is my client that has the $9,500 water bill. She lived in like a bank-owned property that she literally bought from them and was swindled out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The foreclosure was imminent, which she worked to get her house out of foreclosure. She worked to get herself back together and she worked to find the balance, but the water bill was over $9,000 and they would not come down.
It had to take all of the established organizations to help her come down to pay the bill and it did not work because they weren’t able to pay off because they didn’t have the money. With me at the helm and me saying, “Yo, this ain’t working here.” You know what I’m saying? So we went to the public, we went on Facebook, we advertised on social media.
I hate doing those things because that breaks our pride. Or we have to beg our friends and family, we have to beg people, normal strangers, and humans to help out people that don’t even have a pot to piss in and a window to throw it out of, people that would swindle, people that were given bad deals and was taken for so much that they didn’t even know. People that are getting in the homes that they don’t even know if they are going to be there the next month, and people that are definitely at destitute levels and what is the city supposed to do?
The city is supposed to have home modification loans for those that are dealing with foreclosure, they have not had any such. There is supposed to be money to help with people that need certain resources. All that money has been reallocated in this and other places. Every day, I never had a thought of giving up. We can’t give up because we’re the only trusted organization that people could rely on. People could call, people don’t even know what Hydrate Detroit was, never heard of it but they like what they hear, they like what they see, and they like what they’re getting.
We’re not as established as the United Way, and other such like that, but we are working to make sure that this is a resource for anybody that’s in need, you know what I’m saying? Such as Jerry Kids, such as Save the Children. As such, such Hydrate Detroit shall be a charity and should help people that are in need. I always look at Mother Eva Walters, she is a local philanthropist, passed on but she’s a legendary philanthropist that gave her heart and gave her commitment to the City of Detroit.
If there were people that were naked, she would give them clothes, if there were people that was hungry, she would give them food, if there were people that were in need to get help, to get job, to get clean or however did they need to do, she had no judgment or bias. She points you to the right direction and it’s up to you to handle that and that’s basically why we had this organization because we wanted to make sure that love, empathy, and compassion was at the top, vision, and the mission of the organization so that we can share with Detroiters.
When you share love, you share water, you’re sharing compassion and I want stories of triumph and tribulation and oh, my God, moments and people crying and folks that are literally not knowing they were praying and they were in a moment of health a few minutes ago before they dialed this number. They thought they were going to be rejected until we say we’ll help them. We want to be that organization that’s on the ground for people that need help or resources and such even if it’s just calling to get advice. Those moments are never going to close.
Interviewer: Thank you for your time and thank you for your work. We’re all rooting for you to continue with this cool work.
Meeko: Thank you for doing this. Thank you for the opportunity, this is amazing.