Theretha Dixon: My name is Theretha Dixon. I’m from Detroit, here in the 48223 area.
Interviewer: Tell us a little bit about yourself, Theretha Dixon. I know you’re also a minister as well and you’re working here. You’re volunteering at the Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about who you are, your background, and how long you’ve been here in this neighborhood. I know it’s a long question to ask, I guess, but just tell us a little bit about yourself.
A Life-Long Detroiter
Theretha: I’m from Detroit, born and raised. I’ve been over in the Brightmoor Community for over 30 years. I’m a senior now, raised two sons here and have a granddaughter here. My family’s from here, so I’ve been to school here, worked here, retired here. I came to work at the Brightmoor Connection. We started many years ago, it’s been quite a while. Reverend Roslyn started at Cathedral of Faith and I joined her there. From there, it’s grown. We’ve been here, committed to our clients and to the community.
Interviewer: What made you reach out to the Brightmoor Connection? Is that something that you– How did you encounter the pantry in the first place?
Theretha: As I said, I started with Reverend Roslyn and from civic from Cathedral of Faith, and the pantry there that she started there became a collaboration with other churches and organizations, and then Brightmoor Connection came out of that. That’s just a continuation of what we’ve been doing in the community. It just broadened and then got bigger for us anyway. That’s how the Brightmoor Connection got started.
Interviewer: How long has it been since then?
Theretha: I’m not sure. I don’t know, maybe eight years. Maybe eight, maybe more, I’m not sure, but I’m sure that we’ve been doing this work for over 10 years. Yes, it’s just expanded and gotten larger.
Interviewer: Can you tell us a little bit about your role in the pantry, and the overall work that you’ve been doing over here?
Theretha: My role is, basically, I’m under our director, which is Reverend Roslyn and been her assistant for all these years. What we try to do is to be a resource as well as to help people through these difficult times that they have with food and water and clothing. That was a big expansion there. We also help with other things that, when in need, sometimes just to talk to somebody. Sometimes just to come in and sit and have a safe place. Just sit.
You see the community getting together here. Talking issues that they’re concerned about that affects them. It really has expanded. The work is rewarding because it’s my neighbors.
These are my neighbors. I understand what they’re going through because we’ve gone through pretty much the same thing from time to time.
Sometimes people come in and they’re really not shopping for the food. It brings them to other issues and they’re able to sit down with Reverend Roslyn and talk about those issues. Sometimes they’ll just speak about it to me. It’s needed and I’m grateful for it because I’ve been a recipient.
Interviewer: Because those conversations are so important to build community to rebuild soul in a way.
Theretha: Yes, give that hope.
The Evolving of Brightmoor & Its Crisis
Interviewer: yes, when you mentioned about how over the years, how the community has changed, how families have experienced all these changes in different ways, could you maybe go over some of the different things that Brightmoor has changed since 10 or 15 or maybe even 20 years ago?
Theretha: There’s a loss of community in the sense of people have moved, houses have gone in foreclosure, school closings. It’s a gentrification. We know that. Then that people experience job loss. They experience water shutoffs, high rent. You would think why rent would be high when there’s so few people. You have homelessness, a great deal of it that’s changed over those 15 years where you may not have seen that. Now you see it.
Going back to the water shutoffs and high price of water, you see that or you didn’t see it, 15 years ago. School closings, so you see children crowded in the schools now, trying to get to school, their parents having that situation. With job loss there comes in of course income loss, so there has to be or there’s a need for supplemental for us. I say that because my family has experienced it.
They’ve experienced job loss, shutoffs, schools having the shift and getting my granddaughter to school, which means gas. When you only have one and sometimes another income, that becomes a challenge. Whereas here with the food pantry, at least the food helps us supplement some of that cost because then you can use that money for gas. You can use it for other things. That happens in a lot of families. That’s some of the big changes here in Brightmoor over the last 10-15 years.
Experience with Water Shutoffs
Interviewer: Let’s start by talking a little bit about water, and water shut-offs. Let’s move into that direction. First of all, tell me a little bit about your experience with water shut-offs?
Theretha: Well, over the 30 years living here, I’ve experienced it personally once with my family with me being the head. Again, with my children being the head of their household. The water cost was high.
Interviewer: When was that?
Theretha: Well, for one, it was recent. This was this year, a matter of fact. The one, we had paid the bill, got another bill and the bill was only 10 cents left on, and we got a threat of shut-off. These are the kinds of things that give young people anxiety. If you’ve experienced the shut-off before, you’ve had a shut-off, you know how you have to deal with bathing, or even washing up, food. I mean, everything you do is centered around water. If you want a cup of coffee or tea, a glass of milk, water.
Just the threat of being shut-off, it gives a frightening feeling of anxiety and wondering because if you’ve ever been through it you think about getting your children up to go to school, wash, it’s just everything that is around water. These are the kinds of things that I know other families are dealing with today, the high cost of water. We have a right.
Interviewer: This happened, you said, this year, 2019. This was one of your children’s homes?
Interviewer: Did he call you scared and in a panic saying, “Hey mom. This is what happened.”
Interviewer: “What do I do?”
Theretha: “What do I do?” That’s exactly it. Resources using, I called Rev, “What can we do?” He received some water from here. Of course, I gave her follow-ups on what else can we do, what needs to be done, and I relayed that to him. As I said, he got the bill paid. Nevertheless, here comes the next bill and the shut-off notice for 10 cents, the anxiety hit again and then the anger. They’re angry now.
Ten Cents Short?
They’ve had to come to me, come to Rev, and now they’ve done what they’re supposed to do and here comes the water company threatening you over 10 cents. What didn’t I do? That’s that feeling of, “I’m coming up short all the time. Was something about me. How come I didn’t see 10 cents and what can I do?” It’s nothing you’ve done. There’s nothing you’ve done. You didn’t do anything wrong. The bill was paid and they still threatened to cut you off again for 10 cents.
Interviewer: I imagine something like that would make someone feel very precarious. Very unsure of where exactly you stand.
Theretha: Where you stand and who you are.
Theretha: It becomes very personal. Very personal. As I said, you become angry. You begin to think, “What have I done? What more can I do with what I have?” You’re cutting everything out just to pay this water bill and you’ve humbled yourself, not only to come to your mother, but to also a friend. You’ve done that, now, how much more do I need to do? That’s what’s happening with these water shut-offs and threats. It just demeans people.
Interviewer: What was his experience contacting the water department after that to pay the bill and get it all taken care of eventually? Remember, the listening session we were all in, a lot of the ladies talked about how customer service wasn’t necessarily always very nice in talking with you. Sometimes they can be very brisk.
What was your child’s experience in that same situation contacting DWSDN saying, “Hey, I got this letter for 10 cents. I paid my bill, I can definitely pay the rest of the amount. What do I do next? How will you put the water back on for me?” Do you know anything about that experience from him?
Theretha: Well, that part, as I said, the water was turned back on, it was fine. This bill came, I guess, the month after, whatever. Just went and paid it. The effects of it, because of course, you are not going to sit there for 10 cents. It’s the threat of it. For us it was 10 cents, for someone else it may be a nickel. It’s the threat of it. You’ve already done it, now I’m threatening you. If it happens again, even for 10 cents, we’ll turn it off. He just paid. He just paid it. I know him well enough, no, he didn’t discuss it with a teller or anything.
He just paid it because it’s an embarrassing situation with, “What is the teller thinking? I didn’t have the 10 cents?” I could reach over to someone and say, “You got 10 cents?” It’s an embarrassment and knowing him, he didn’t say anything, he just paid it. He was angry and his wife was angry, and they let me know, but I know they didn’t talk to them at all. Not at all.
Interviewer: You also mentioned how when you were the head of the household also, that you received a shut-off notice as well. When was that?
Theretha: That was seven years ago. My boys were much younger. They were in their teens though. A matter of fact, we had just moved here.
Interviewer 1: Was it the ’90’s, ’80’s?
Theretha: This is the ’80’s. I can tell you exactly, 1988, and I think it probably happened by 1989 that it happened, and my boys were still in school. I became a single mother, and therefore working and trying to maintain a house that I couldn’t, where my husband and I were doing, and I became a single parent at that point with two growing boys, and the water.
Interviewer: Sure. A lot of responsibilities.
Theretha: Then, it wasn’t as hard as it is now, and it was coming every three months, and then still fell short with one income, and so the water was shut-off. Not for long because the same way they were resources for me to go to. Back then the Salvation Army, I think they helped me if I remember right, and so it wasn’t for long, but it was long enough that the experience of not having water and having children to try to get to school, and clothes to wash, bathing, it was horrendous. That was my experience and I needed that resource to help me pay it. As I said, it wasn’t as high as it is today. Yes.
Interviewer: I know this was a while ago, 1988?
Interviewer 1: When you think back to that experience, and you look at really what’s happening around us right now, with the shutoffs from so many of your neighbors, are there any differences in terms of how it was rolled out? So, for instance, these days, you’ve got the blue paint on the sidewalks, you’ve got the very little notice or warning at all before the shutoffs, so was it very similar in those days as well in 1988, or?
Changing Shutoff Procedures
Theretha: No, it’s evolved, you have someone knock on the door back then and ask you about your bill, and let you know, “I’m getting ready to shut it off.”
What I understand today, as you say is blue line, smart, open people, know what’s going on at your house, they may not know what’s going on in mine simply because the person may come in an unmarked car, their own car, I may just go and turn it off.
Interviewer: They knock on your door and say, “Hello, this is Dixon, you’re behind on your bill, we’re going to shut your water off if you don’t pay your bill.”
Theretha: They may give you a couple of hours or a day or two and then come back. That’s the difference from what’s happening now. Now it’s a blue line. Everybody knows, not necessarily would know unless I tell them that my water was being shut off. They may say, “Oh, I don’t know who that person is.” They’re peeping out, “I wonder if it’s the bill collector.” They didn’t necessarily have the truck signs and all of that. They may come out, like I said, in their own cars, and they would shut your water off. Today, it’s out there.
I think that as I said, it brings anxiety. People knowing [about your water shutoff] because there’s a stigma and you feel as if there is something you’ve done or something you’ve not done. You think if you are doing the wrong thing. There’s a stigma between not having water and people knowing you’re not having water.
Interviewer: How do you respond when friends and family members, perhaps in a moment where they’re reaching out for support, let’s say, “Theretha, this has happened, and I’m so ashamed that this has happened to me. My family and I don’t know how I let this happen.” How do you respond?
Holding the System Accountable
Theretha: Well, I tell them usually, it’s not your fault, it’s social economics. Recently, we were going to have a discussion. We were talking about in my parents day, one paycheck took care of five people. My mother didn’t work. My dad took care of five people with bills. Today, you have a mother, father, and maybe the adult child working and this still does not take of water, lights and gas. I tell them, it’s not you, it’s social-economics. We have to make a living wage. We’re not making a living wage.
In some cases, it’s really a struggle to pay these bills. When you only have one paycheck, and the paycheck is from McDonald’s, or a place that’s not paying, Walmart, or Meijers, not paying a living wage, it’s not going to take care of all the bills. It’s just not. I tell them, it’s not you; it’s social economics.
Interviewer: I know it might be hard to estimate this, but what percentage of people living in the Brightmoor area do you think have faced really high water bills or just receive a water shut off notice? Do you think it might be 20%, 30%?
Theretha: Oh, I don’t know that. That probably would be a question for Rev. Like I said a lot people talk with her.
Interviewer: Do you think most of the people who come to the pantry have experienced either a shut-off notice?
Theretha: Again, that’s something that you would have to talk to Rev about.
Interviewer: Yes, we talked earlier a little bit about how there’s a lot of feelings of stigma and shame with your water connection shutoff, how do you even know that from people in that case? How do people talk to you about that?
Theretha: How do you know?
Interviewer: Yes, so when someone comes to the pantry and stuff, do they just outright say for instance, “Miss Dixon, I have my water shut off. Do you have water?” Or do they say something else?
Theretha: Now usually, if they haven’t spoken with Rev about a water shut off, they’ll come into the other side, the pantry side, and they’ll see the water, we have a water station. They’ll see the water and they say, “Well, can I get some?” I’ll say, “Well, you’ll have to talk with Rev about it. If there’s a shut-off issue or dirty water issue, you need to talk to her about it.
They may go all the way around and then go, therefore, that’s the stigma. They felt comfortable asking about it because it was there. But they were uncomfortable to say, “Yes, I’m experiencing water shut-off.” Once you make them comfortable and say, this is what it’s about, and that’s what we do and it’s okay,” then they’re willing to talk to Reverend Ross about it.
Interviewer: Do you know of any other groups or pantries or groups in general in the Brightmoor area that are helping folks with water issues?
Theretha: I don’t know. I really don’t. That’s something, if you’re having one and I know about it, I’m going to direct you to my director. There, she uses her resources, if we can’t handle it, she’ll give you the resources in which to do so.
Interviewer 1: One of the things that we’ve been grappling with is this notion of water security. What does it mean to you?
Theretha: What is security? Being able to get up and have a cup of coffee and take a shower. That’s water security.
Interviewer: Just the everyday.
“Water Is security…”
Theretha: Everyday stuff because even if you don’t drink coffee or tea, you drink milk, water is important because if you didn’t have the rain and the water, the cows won’t eat the grass and you won’t have the milk. Water is everywhere. It’s important. Water is security means I can do those things: I can take a shower, I can go with a glass of water, I can make a cup of tea or coffee or whatever. That’s water security. I can run the water. That’s water security.
Interviewer: When you hear the stories of the people who come to the pantry or even just outside of the pantry, in your own neighborhood. Maybe when they talk about water, do you hear about any other concerns related to water or is it primarily about affordability and high bills? For instance, do you hear concerns about say flooding or concerns about possible lead or copper contamination or not?
Theretha: Yes, you hear about the flooding because that’s part of the area, the gentrification and lack of caring for the community as the city had once was once taken care of, so you’re going to have that flooding. You hear about that.
You’re going to hear about if you don’t have water, the illnesses, the children. One of the other changes that just went through my children today you have to bring hand sanitizer. They’re asked to bring hand sanitizer, that’s a part of their school’s laws, whereas my children, they didn’t because they could go to the bathroom in school and wash their hands.
Now they have to have hand sanitizer in the classrooms. That’s something. Plus, what happens is you get colds, just ordinary, where we would think it was ordinary colds. Our children now without water, the cold spread so much around the whole house, where in my day and my children’s day, if one got a cold, it was able for just that one to have the cold and not everybody, because lack of water. You’re going to have that and it turns into something else as well. You turn into pneumonia very easily.
The Irony—Flooding Neighborhoods
Interviewer: You talk about flooding just a while ago. Generally, we hear a lot about the current flooding especially out in the east side, but are you seeing a lot of flooding in your neighborhood or in your community or have you seen it in the past or here as well?
Theretha: Yes. A lot of street flooding- [crosstalk] -and some of the– My sons, the basement, yes. Basement flooding. We didn’t get to knee level, but we got the water where you just kind of squash, squash, squash.
Interviewer: How often does that happen?
Theretha: For them it’s a good rain, a good storm.
Interviewer: Every other year?
Theretha: No, every year maybe two, three times a year.
Interviewer: They live around this Brightmoor as well, right?
Theretha: Yes, they’re Brightmoor, we’re Brightmoor. For me, that’s where I live. I live with my son and daughter-in-law, so yes we’ve experienced it. The landlord gets pretty tired of having to come and send a plumber. He knows it’s because the lack of maintenance for this area that usually had been done not being done there.
Interviewer 1: I want to ask you how does that make you feel.
Interviewer: At this point because it happens so often for you that it’s almost like “Ugh, one more.”
You almost become numb to it [flooding] or you know it’s going to happen, so you become prepared for it.
Interviewer: How do you prepare for it?
Theretha: You do everything the landlord asked you to do. That’s for the drain, the weed and all of that and hopefully that will help, but when things haven’t been maintained and that is the reason for it, it doesn’t really help. It doesn’t help.
Interviewer: Do most of your other neighbors also experience flooding?
Theretha: Experience the same thing yes.
Interviewer: Basement flooding every year or so?
Interviewer: Do you need to take any precaution as far as possible illnesses and concern like Hep A and things like that?
Theretha: The only thing that we’ve done is continue to seal the basement, paint the basement that sort of thing, watch the floor maintenance and the mold. That’s where the paint comes in usually if it’s up a little further like to your cuff in your pants, that’s when my son will paint to keep down any mold, disinfect.
That’s pretty much what we can do.
Theretha: That’s pretty much it. We’ve advised our neighbors to do or they have told us what they do. That’s about all you can do and hope you don’t get sick.
Interviewer: Does the street get flooded?
Theretha: Yes, you get street flooding. That’s usually where it is. It’s not in the sense of it may come where you can really see. We’ve had that once, where it came up to the porch, but usually in front, yes.
There’s over the curve, yes, street flood.
Interviewer: Has the city ever sent out anyone or put out any information or brochures or made any sort of attempt to address this?
Theretha: Not that I know of.
Interviewer: In the recent past?
Theretha: [chuckles] Not that I know of. I can’t say they haven’t. I don’t know of any.
Interviewer: What about other groups or organizations maybe because everyone talks, especially these days, there’s a lot of conversation about using green stormwater infrastructure to help reduce the risk of flooding in parts of the city. Has any of these other groups perhaps been in contact with residents to probably address this issue?
Theretha: Not that I know of.
Theretha: I can’t say they haven’t, but not that I’m aware of.
Interviewer: Nothing in the mail or anything like that?
Theretha: If it is, it may have come to my son and daughter-in-law, but I haven’t seen it.
Theretha: That’s the possibility I can see.
Interviewer: That’s interesting. You said, “I’m numb to this right now,” and I’m like, “Wow,” [laughs] because that just seems like such a horrible thing to have to deal with.
More on Becoming “Numb” to Flooding
Theretha: Yes. One of the things is when you say you become numb, it’s not complacency. It’s said that it may become a norm of life for you. That said, and that’s one of the things that we can bet, I think as workers here, as volunteers to give hope is that not to become complacent, but remember what it was and it can’t be again, to give that person hope because I can tell you personally, it’s possible to allow this kind of living, the struggle, this day-to-day survival to become the norm for you.
That’s where the hopelessness comes in. That’s when the person is hopeless. It’s hard to see it, you have to really hear it because I could tell you there were times when for me it felt hopeless. This is the norm. This is going to be my struggle today. My struggle is going to be to get my kids to school. My struggle is going to be how am I going to feed them, whether they’re going to eat, that became my norm. I know for people in the community today, young people who are struggling, that can become their norm. That is really a hopelessness because it seems like it’s not going to get any better. I just got to learn how to deal with what it is. Well, what happens is, it gets worse. It gets worse.
Interviewer: Have you always had the flooding problem, even since you’ve lived–?
Theretha: Plumbing problem?
Interviewer: Flooding problem, since you’ve moved here.
Theretha: Thirty years? No. We’re still in Brightmoor, matter of fact my son lives–
Interviewer: I thought you said you live with your son and daughter.
Theretha: I do, but not for 30 years.
Theretha: Not for 30 years.
Theretha: Where I lived, where we lived, where I was raising my sons, we had some flooding problems, but it never came to the house. The house was fine.
Interviewer: How long have you more or less experienced this problem with the flooding?
Theretha: With the flooding where he is?
Theretha: He probably–
Theretha: Ever since they moved there. I think they’ve been there maybe eight years. 2010.
Interviewer: Have they talked about moving?
Theretha: Well, they talk about it all the time.
Interviewer: At least to a different part of the city?
Theretha: They talk about it all the time.
Interviewer: It’s tough.
Theretha: Yes. It’s tough.
It’s tough to just pack up and move. Not everyone has that ability to move like that, right. It’s absolutely right. It becomes a question, is it all over the city, or just here? As I said, you can become– It’s your norm. I’m surviving in my norm. Whereas, for other people, this would not be normal. I’m surviving in my norm. That’s where the hopelessness comes in.
I’m okay. I don’t see that I’m feeling hopeless because this is my norm. What’s wrong with my norm? That means something’s wrong with me. See what I’m saying? I’m okay.
Interviewer: You said it gets worse. The hopelessness, and you said that you survive in your norm, and then it gets worse. How does it get worse?
Theretha: Okay. When I say that it can get worse. The situation can get worse, and you don’t recognize that it is because you are in survival mode. That’s what I mean when I say it can get worse, and you’re not really recognizing it because you’re already hopeless. I’m in survival. I’m surviving. I may not be thriving, but I’m surviving. That’s hopelessness.
A Fair Price is “What they can afford”
Interviewer: What do you think would be a fair price to pay for water?
Theretha: A fair price?
Theretha: What do you mean, “a fair price”?
Interviewer: One of the problems is, of course that we have been talking about, is really high, really high water bills for Detroiters. They’re recurrent. Also, every month, or every three months, you often have to pay for sewerage fees, drainage fees. A lot of those costs have been inflated quite a lot. You’ve got the whole 370 rule in terms of infrastructure costs, maintenance costs, for the entire system, Detroiters are paying 3%, so there’s a lot that, in terms of costs, goes into the water bill. Which is difficult for a lot of Detroiters.
On the flip side, you’ve also got folks who argue that it’s all got to pay for it. You can’t have water for free because all of that water has to be treated. It has to be distributed. There are costs associated with that. Someone who’s situated bang in the middle of all of this right now. You’re experiencing not just the debate side of high water bills, but the life side of high water bills. What are your thoughts about what’s an affordable rate for people? What’s a fair price that people can actually afford?
Theretha: What they can afford. Their ability to pay.
Interviewer: Based on what they’re earning?
Interviewer: Okay. Do you think water should be free?
Theretha: Well, nothing can be free. Since all of this other’s tied into it, it’s not free. I think that would be great if it was free, but the ability to pay. I think you came up with it with housing, the ability to pay. That’s how I feel about that. What you can afford to pay.
Interviewer: Because I’m sure you encounter so many different people, in the pantry, but in the neighborhood, as well, some really, unfortunately, sad stories, but also, in some cases, uplifting stories of people who are trying to make do with what they have. Can you recall maybe one of these stories that really moves you, or inspires you? Someone dealing with these incredibly high water bills, or who’s had to deal with a long drawn out shutoff situation.
Theretha: No. None that I want to share, I think. It’s not that I don’t really want to share it, that’s one to ask Rev.
Interviewer: You don’t have to talk about the real names.
Theretha: I can tell you one that I heard. It wasn’t about a shutoff. This is one that happens to be my son’s brother-in-law. He received a water bill of $1,600.
Theretha: Fortunately, he and his wife had the ability to pay.
Interviewer: Who has the ability to pay a $1,600– [laughs]
Theretha: They both have good jobs. They’re not far from Brightmoor. They may be considered in our area. Yes. They’re not far. Just in the league. He said that they went on and paid it. He had questioned it, called them. They told him that’s what it is, and while it’s going through review, you still have to pay it, so he went, and he paid it. They told him something, “You must have a leak.” He said no leak is going to be 1,600 dollars. The following month, or the following bill was $600. He disputed that. They were used to getting bills at $230 dollar water bills.
He went over to pay that. They told him, “The next one you get, I want to see you.” He’s one that I would love to come to meetings to express what happened with him. That’s what I can tell you. They have the ability to pay. That’s because they have two nice incomes coming in. Everybody doesn’t have that.Doesn’t make it right. No. He was paying for the whole block. That’s what I told him, “You are paying for the whole block for the month”
Interviewer: It’s like you’re filling up an Olympic swimming pool, maybe in the back.
Theretha: No, nothing like that. No, not at all, but that’s things that are going on and people not really speak it out. He did, but he’s not getting a qualified answer, and before he could even get an answer, it was threatened to go ahead and pay the bill. He paid the bill before it really was reviewed and looked at.
Interviewer: After the review, was the rating changed at all?
Theretha: No, you paid it, why should we change it?
Theretha: That’s part of that threat of shutting off nobody wants their water off. That’s that threat. What do I have to fight you with? I don’t personally know how many people right here in Brightmoor that have gone through and experienced the same thing. That threat, they did fight it because of the threat of being shut off. Nobody wants their water shut off. Water, it’s a necessity, it’s a right. You can’t do anything without water, so to not have it or to threaten me, none of that will happen. It shuts people down. It’s really a blessing to have a connection here, Brightmoor connection, where people can come in, talk with our director. She finds resources and to be able to open up their feelings and be told, “It’s not you, you’re re not a bad person. it’s nothing you’ve really done.”
Interviewer: I think we’ve covered most of the issues, so anything else that we have not covered so far that you would like to leave us with? Any last words or parting comments?
Theretha: I’m very humbled by this, but I thank God for Brightmoor Connection, I really do and all its partners and resources, that people can come and express and tell their needs, their fears and be given hope. Not that it’s not normal, even though you’re surviving, it’s not a normal thing. Live without water, the food, it’s not anything that you’re a bad person. I am grateful for Brightmoor Connection.