Right Now, Someone in Detroit Can’t Pay the Water Bill—That’s Where You Come In

Turn On Detroit’s Water matches those in need with those who want to help.

(Photo: 'The Detroit News'/Twitter)

Jul 21, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Thousands of Detroit’s poorest residents who haven’t been able to keep up with their sky-high bills breathed a sigh of relief Monday as local officials announced that they’re temporarily halting plans to cut off water service. In the wake of a rally last Friday in which more than 1,000 protesters, including actor Mark Ruffalo, converged on the city to denounce the inhumane shutoffs, department officials decided to suspend disconnections for 15 days.

But in a town where nearly 40 percent of people are poor and unemployment tops 14 percent, cash to pay those water bills isn’t going to fall from the sky before then. That’s why designer Kristy Tillman and tech entrepreneur Tiffani Bell have teamed up to launch Turn On Detroit’s Water, a grassroots effort that directly matches someone who could use assistance paying a bill with an individual donor.

Someone who wants to help out doesn’t have to be able to pay an entire bill either. A mere $10 that would’ve been spent eating out for lunch or $5 that would’ve been dropped on coffee could chip away at the water bill of someone who needs H2O to drink, cook with, and bathe in.

“I’d been seeing different stories about what was going on [in Detroit] for quite some time now but had never read very deeply,” says Bell. However, last Thursday as she read the latest news about the crisis, she began to wonder “how people actually had been getting water if their water was shut off.”

The shutoffs aren’t just a matter of Detroit’s residents being irresponsible and unwilling to pay their bills. Water rates have climbed an astronomical 119 percent in the past decade, and the city council recently approved another 8.7 percent increase. Former city employees “have been caught up in this issue because, thanks to Detroit’s bankruptcy, their pensions have been reduced while their water bills have continued to climb,” Bell says.

Instead of just giving a behemoth organization money and trusting that it would trickle down to folks who need help, Bell wanted to ensure that her cash immediately aided those affected.

“I actually wanted to pay a water bill for someone,” says Bell. “In moments like these, people need direct help, not a paperwork-laden runaround.” So on Friday, Bell and Tillman quickly put up a site, using source code on GitHub that lets programmers collaborate on projects.

The way the project works is simple. Motor City residents who need help fill out an online form, providing essential information such as their name, their Detroit Water and Sewerage Department account number, and the amount that they owe.

“We keep everything except their account number and past due amount confidential,” adds Bell.

People who’d like to help out provide their email addresses on the project’s website. Bell and Tillman then match them to someone who needs assistance. They send the donor the Detroit resident’s account number, the past due amount, and instructions on how to use the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s website to pay.

Bell, who is based in Oakland, and Tillman, who lives in Boston, don’t personally know anyone who has been affected by the shutoff.

“I just genuinely care about people and have been watching the ongoing situation in Detroit for some time now,” says Tillman. “I could no longer sit idly by.”

The two have also never met in real life. Instead, the socially conscious duo connected through social media several years ago. “In a way, that’s awesome because that shows the power of channels like Twitter to connect people who’ve never met to do some greater good,” says Bell. “We were chatting about the water crisis on Twitter and then sprung into action.”

The project is only in its fourth day, but “we’ve had some people jump right in to connect us to people on the ground, which will surely translate into more matches,” says Tillman. “A lot of people like the idea of helping directly and were reluctant like Tiffani and I to give to large nameless funds.” The “willingness of people to help once you tell them what you are doing” has been inspiring, she adds.