Rob Burgess

The city of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy July 13, 2013. The fallout caused municipal services to shore up budgets by any means necessary. For around 20,000 unlucky households since then, that meant loss of water service. Requests for an emergency stoppage to these shutoffs were filed. Late last month, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes issued his disappointing decision.

“Detroit’s bankruptcy judge today said he lacked the authority to issue a restraining order to stop water shutoffs over delinquent bills, saying that there is no constitutional right to water and a moratorium would be a financial hit to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department,” reported Matt Helms of the Detroit Free Press Sept. 29. “While Rhodes’ ruling made it clear he understood the scope of the problem of water shutoffs in a city with deep poverty, he said the plaintiffs in the case — advocates including Moratorium Now, the Peoples Water Board and the National Action Network — did not make the case that a six-month moratorium was necessary or within his powers.”

Alice Jennings, lead attorney for the residents without water, told “Democracy Now!” Friday about the shutoff’s sudden, cruel nature.

“What’s happening here is nothing short of a humanitarian crisis,” said Jennings. “Starting last year, the city of Detroit began to shut water off on ... homes with disabled persons, children — it really didn’t matter. In a military way, the truck would start at one end of the street, and by the time it reached the other end there may be 50 percent of the homes were shut off.”

As I wrote in last week’s column — “Living off the grid illegal?” — Robin Speronis, 55, has been persecuted by Cape Coral, Florida, for refusing city services. Florida state law requires residences to connect to sewer hookup if one is available. I support anyone’s right to choose to live an independent, self-sufficient life. What I can’t get behind is forcing destitute residents of a broken city into such a situation.

More than half of Detroit households now live at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, Helms reported. Detroit has lost more than 62 percent of its population since its 1950 peak. The entire system has become top-heavy and is now crashing down on those least equipped to deal: the swollen ranks of the desperately poor.

Jennings has vowed to fight on in appealing Rhodes’ decision. In the meantime, those affected should look to neighbors for inspiration.

“A downtown Detroit coffeehouse and an adjoining jewelry store get all their water from a system of plastic pipe and garden hoses attached to a nearby fireplug with duct tape and towels,” reported Robert Allen of The Free Press on Oct. 2. “The city’s Water and Sewerage Department hooked it up several months ago because two, nearby crumbling buildings make it too dangerous to work on the water main leak below.”

Cost-saving Rube Goldberg machines were even created by local first responders.

“Detroit is so broke that firefighters get emergency alerts through pop cans, coins, door hinges, pipes and doorbells,” reported Tresa Baldas of The Free Press Sept. 6. “And they make these gizmos themselves — one involving a pop can that gets tipped over by an incoming fax. The clink of the can means there’s an emergency. Then there’s the chain-reaction gadget: a fax hits a door hinge, which then tugs on a wire, which then sets off a doorbell. … Due to budget constraints, none of the city’s 38 firehouses have the modern-day emergency alert systems that most other cities use.”

Living off the grid and barely surviving without utilities are two different things. The former requires careful planning, copious supplies and determination. The latter requires only a few missed payments. Bankruptcy means you can’t pay your debts. Detroit declared as much — the largest such civic action in the country’s history, in fact. How does it expect its own citizens to pay their bills if they can’t even make good on their own?

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at or on Twitter at

React to this story:


Trending Video

Recommended for you