Imagine you’ve fallen behind on your water bill and the city has shut off the water to your home.
You can’t wash your hands after using the toilet or changing your baby’s diaper. You can’t bathe your children. You have a hard time cooking nourishing food.
Think it won’t affect you, a suburbanite who always pays bills on time? Keep going. Imagine that person who can’t wash her hands going to work — perhaps in a restaurant or a store you visit often. Imagine the children going to school and interacting with teachers and other children at the playground.
Water shutoffs are a public health issue that affect the entire community.
That was the main message at a panel discussion, “The Public Health Impact of Our Regional Water Crisis,” Oct. 23 at Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield. The program, sponsored by the temple and Detroit Jews for Justice, attracted 100 people from Detroit and the suburbs.
“We’re trying to raise awareness in the Metro Detroit Jewish community and build a base through which we can mobilize for policy change,” said Eleanor Gamalski, Detroit Jews for Justice’s community organizer.
Rabbi Brent Gutmann of Kol Ami said the temple was eager to cosponsor because of its long tradition of supporting social action programs.
“I think a congregation that does not have social action at its core is nothing more than a glorified country club,” he said. “If our Judaism does not inspire us to transform our world, why are we doing it?”
Panelists included Monica Lewis-Patrick of We the People of Detroit; Paul von Oeyen, M.D., a retired high-risk obstetrician and facilitator of the social justice mission area team for United Church of Christ; Nicole Hill, who shared a first-person account of the effects of water shutoffs; and Stephanie Chang, Michigan state representative whose district includes Ecorse, River Rouge and part of Detroit.
Lewis-Patrick said the practice of turning local governments over to emergency managers led to the Flint water crisis and to Detroit’s policy of cutting the water supply to homes of people in arrears on their bills. With no access to clean water, some parents lose custody of their children, destroying families. Water shutoffs also accelerate blight in the neighborhood.
Von Oeyen noted a study done through Henry Ford Health System that showed a correlation between increased incidence of water-borne diseases and water shutoffs — though he noted that further research needs to be done before concluding that the water shutoffs caused the increase in disease.
Hill, a college student and single mother, outgrew the asthma she had as a child but suffered irreversible lung damage after the water was shut off at her Detroit home in 2014. As a member of the People’s Water Board Coalition, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and We the People of Detroit, she has become a leading voice on water rights.
Chang discussed several bills she is sponsoring or co-sponsoring in the state legislature. House Bill 4393 would provide water shutoff protection for seniors, families with minor children and people with disabilities. It would provide clearer notices for those at risk of a water shutoff and create a low-income water assistance fund, similar to the one that helps people avoid utility shutoffs. House Bills 4389 and 4390 would change the penalty for illegally reconnecting water after a shutoff from a five-year felony to a civil infraction or misdemeanor.
Those bills are being considered by the House Committee on Local Government, which includes representatives Jim Ellison, who represents Royal Oak and Madison Heights, and Jeremy Moss, who represents Southfield, Lathrup Village, Beverly Hills, Bingham Farms and Franklin. Chang urged voters to contact these representatives to support public hearings on the bills.
Another bill, House Bill 4392, would extend the jurisdiction of the state Public Service Commission to include the operations of municipal water and sewer systems.
Getting The Word Out
Mel Chudnof of West Bloomfield, a former president of Kol Ami and a member of Detroit Jews for Justice, facilitated the panel.
Shirlee Wyman Harris of Commerce Township felt the program was extremely powerful. “It’s really important that we wake up,” said Harris, who works at the Holocaust Memorial Center. “We don’t think about how water shutoffs in Detroit affect the rest of us.”
Stu Raben, also of Commerce Township and a Kol Ami member, said the program was an eye-opener. He said he plans to get more involved in Detroit Jews for Justice’s water justice efforts.
Detroit Jews for Justice has several events planned in the next few weeks to help get the word out. There will be an open house at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 9, at the Detroit home of organizer Rabbi Alana Alpert. Register on the organization’s website to get the address.
On Tuesday, Nov. 21, at 6 p.m. there will be a “talking points” training program about water shutoffs at a location to be announced.
Detroit Jews for Justice was founded in 2014 by Congregation T’chiyah to further its mission of making social change central to congregational life. Projects have included work on behalf of racial justice, education reform and increased minimum wages. Rabbi Alpert serves both the congregation and Detroit Jews for Justice.
Barbara Lewis Contributing Writer