Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Silently Suffering

While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.
Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)

This week, we spent a few afternoons canvassing homes in a pair of Detroit neighborhoods with an organization called We The People of Detroit (highlighted in last week's update) and we were joined by our dear friend Mike Smith who came out to Detroit for business and hit the streets with us. Basically, we were going door-to-door to get the word out about the water hotline run by the People's Water Board, an umbrella group committed to advocating for affordable water (rates at no more than 3% of the income of a household) and providing emergency water delivery service for those trying to survive. Residents who have had their water shut-off by the city, or who have received notices that they risk water shut-off, can call in and ask for help & advice (above: the view out of our front window, photo by Mike Smith).

Many folks (both from Detroit & looking in from the suburbs) sincerely ask, "What's the problem? If they don't want to lose access to water, they ought to pay their bills!" Sure, this is the issue for some, and we are seeing this reflected in some of the statistics (approximately 60% of residents who have water shut-offs are getting it turned back quickly after they pay the bills). But what about those who cannot afford even basic water service (the "other 40%").

And what about Isabella, whom we met on Saturday and whose real name we're going to withhold, just like what the city is doing with her water. Isabella moved into her home with her three children in February to be closer to her mom who lives a few houses down the street. Good thing because Isabella hasn't had water service since day one back in February. To get her water service turned back on, she needed to come up with $4000. The owner, an elderly man who has given over the reins of taking care of the home to his son, moved to Georgia. Who let the water bill go? The owner? The owner's son? The previous renters? All she knows is that she hasn't had water in the house for 8 months. Good thing Mom is right down the street.

We met another elderly woman on oxygen who lived downtown in Section 8 housing for years until one of the billionaires bought the building and jacked up the rent to $1400. Another victim of gentrification, caught in the "free" market forces of rising property values, she and her special needs daughter moved to the Westside 2 months ago only to find out that she, too, would not have access to water until she ponied up the money to pay for a service she didn't use.

We talked to another woman who had 8 kids living under her roof. I repeat. 8. Kids. But no water since the day she moved in! When she called the water department, they told her she needed to pay a $200 deposit. She can't afford it. These women are the face of poverty in America. They are silently suffering (but resiliently surviving!) in the homes they are renting, somehow expected to pay for the water that their landlords are required by law to cover. There are thousand of residents in this situation in Detroit, and, of course, jobs aren't available, as the unemployment rate hovers around 15%. This is the "nightmare" that Dr. King spoke of in 1967 when he "saw my black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."

The American nightmare continues. We got just a Costco sample-size portion of it this week, as we commuted our white skin to Detroit's Westside, a beautiful neighborhood of lush lawns, towering Spruce trees and brick homes built in the heyday back in the 30's and 40's. Our church has hundreds of gallons of water to give to folks, like Isabella, in dire straits. Sure, charity is needed, but our sincere efforts won't cut it. We need engagement with the filthy, rotten system that produces these outcomes. The walls of this economic & political structure cannot bear the burden of massive wealth for a few and heart-wrenching poverty for the masses, as the safety zone of the middle class continues to shrink.

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