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Coronavirus makes even finding water to help the needy a struggle in Detroit

DETROIT — At St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, dozens of volunteers gathered this week to unload a truck full of water bottles to distribute to those whose water remains off in the city.

The center is one of three Detroit water service stations staffed by volunteers, and all have quickly exhausted their supplies and struggled to re-stock them during the coronavirus crisis. 

"There has been no distributor willing to sell us bulk water," said Monica Lewis-Patrick, CEO of We the People of Detroit, an activist group, as she carried water from the truck to the church. 

"It's because of hoarding and people's fears around the pandemic."

Despite city efforts to restore service to those whose service has been disconnected for non-payment, hundreds — if not thousands — of residents remain in homes without running water, even though hand-washing is vital to slowing the pandemic.

Detroit has shut off water to more than 141,000 accounts since an aggressive collections campaign began in 2014 in an effort to improve its finances. Last year alone, crews cut service to more than 23,000 homes.

That’s left many vulnerable to the pandemic, said activists, who spent more than two weeks making phone calls before obtaining pallets of water bottles from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and local merchants. 

"We have thousands of people in Detroit living without water and sanitation," Lewis-Patrick said. "We have been looking under every rock and around every corner to find water for our residents."

After repeatedly resisting calls to suspend water shutoffs, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on March 9  announced the city will restore service so residents can wash their hands to halt the spread of COVID-19. A city program restores water for discounted fees of $25, far less than normal fees.

As of Tuesday, nearly 850 accounts were restored, while another 150 should be by April 3, according to city records. Crews this week also are planning to begin reaching out to 5,000 homes that may be occupied and without water

Detroit officials acknowledge the program started slowly.

“We didn't anticipate the level of repairs that were needed inside these houses—meters froze during the winter or their plumbing heads leaked or there was sewage in the basement,” said Bryan Peckinpaugh, a water department spokesman.

“We didn't have plumbers on staff to do this type of work, so we had to contract with plumbers in order to fix these issues and that caused the delay.”

The program was announced the same week Michigan confirmed its first case of coronavirus. As of Thursday, 2,856 have tested positive statewide and 60 died. Detroit accounts for nearly 30 percent of the cases, 851, and a quarter of the deaths, 15.

Lewis-Patrick said the restoration program has been dangerously slow. Another group, the People’s Water Board, has called on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to enlist the National Guard to distribute water to Detroit residents. 

"We find it very disturbing that they are having such a challenge in terms of getting the water back on—how are people supposed to wash their hands for 20 seconds if they can't even get bottled water?" she asked.

Among the volunteers was Donovan McKinney, who has used his pickup truck to deliver water.

"I'm frustrated because people's water hasn't been turned on, the water shutoffs is a crisis within itself, but with the coronavirus, all hell is breaking loose,” he said.

He delivered water to a parking lot of West Side Unity Church, where the Rev. JoAnn Watson said she had been waiting for days.

"There are a lot of seniors in this neighborhood; we must get water to them,” said Watson, a former member of the Detroit City Council.

The need for water is dire for many in Detroit. For others, it’s food. At the Spirit of Hope Food Pantry on Grand River, frustration and anger erupted this week as people stood in line to get boxes of food. 

Standing in the queue was Serenity Poynter. It was her first time at a pantry to get food for her family. 

"I'm needing food, I'm needing more canned goods because you don't know if you're going to be able to pay utility bills. You don't know if you're going to be able to pay your phone bills,” she said.

The 36-year old mother of five stopped working as a hair stylist two weeks ago, before Whitmer officially closed hair, nail, and tanning salons because of the coronavirus. 

 "There's no way that nobody wants to get their hair done in this time," Poynter said.

She said she’s humbled by the experience and waiting in the food line.

"I don't even want to cry about it, I'm here because I'm in need, we are all in need,” she said. “They're [Spirit of Hope] here risking their lives to make sure that we're fed." 

The rise in the need for food since the outbreak has mostly come from families with children.  Meeting the demand is Gleaners Food Bank, which already feeds 300,000 children in southeast Michigan who rely on free or reduced meals. But since schools closed on March 12, the food bank is working overtime to meet the demand. 

"We're ramping up our distributions," says Stacy Averill, senior director of community engagement at Gleaners Community Food Bank. "In the past couple of weeks, we have added on 54 additional sites.

"Families are put in a situation where they are, without food. Our response to supporting those families is making sure that kids are fed," Averill says. "We're also packing 6,000 emergency food boxes for households.

Gleaners serves five counties in southeast Michigan. The leadership put together a task force to deal specifically with issues resulting from the coronavirus. 

"We expect there to be waves of need," Averill said. "Schools were closed a couple of weeks ago, and so that's the first wave of need, businesses closing is the second." 

About 130,000 people filed for unemployment in the past week. Service agencies are bracing themselves for an even greater need for food, and water.


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