Lawmakers, Activists Seek Help for Detroit's Water Bill Crisis

It's time for the federal government to intervene, they say.

Posted: 07/30/2014 02:11 PM EDT

Just as beleaguered Detroit was starting to look like a city where creative, adventurous young people and other urban pioneers could become the architects of their respective American dreams in a place of rebirth, it became the center of yet another crisis. The city's Water and Sewerage Department has cut off service to thousands of families with delinquent bills, which critics say is a human rights violation or a health risk and in some cases, both.

It's time, they say, for the federal government to step up.

Congressional lawmakers and activist groups like Democracy for America and Food & Water Watch have gathered more than 150,000 petition signatures demanding that President Obama and the Department of Health and Human Services intervene.

At a Capitol Hill press conference on Wednesday, Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) said that he has reached out to the White House and also warned that there are going to be similar crises in other cities.

"Detroit is not the only place in America where there's a water problem. Depending on how this goes, it's going to affect the decisions in many other cities and that's why it's so important that we intervene at this point," he said.

Conyers has asked HHS to declare the crisis a public health emergency to stop the "draconian water shutoffs." He also expressed confidence that the administration will be supportive, but didn't say exactly how. Conyers did, however, suggest a first step.

"I don't expect them to roll up their sleeves and start [reconnecting services] but an acknowledgment of the seriousness of this issue is critical," the veteran lawmaker said.

Rev. Lennox Yearwood, who heads the Detroit-based Hip Hop Caucus, said that ignoring the crisis is simply un-American. Without service, families are forced to buy water that they can ill-afford, leave home to shower and improvise ways to flush their toilets.

"That's not the way we should be in America," he told BET.com.

In some cases, he noted, restoring service is not as simple as calling the water department to make payment arrangements. There are families whose bills spiked disproportionately high and need to be adjusted to reflect actual usage. Federal intervention, he said, is needed to help ensure that they are not victimized.

The water crisis, the civil rights activist added, is yet another damning example of how those with the least in the U.S. are unnecessarily made to endure and suffer the most.

"A lot of companies have unpaid water bills and their water is still running, [families] are being cut off," Yearwood said. "When we can bail out big banks but not the most vulnerable, the poor, the disenfranchised, something is wrong, not just in Detroit, but in the nation."

 Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.

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(Photo: AP Photo)

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