Yesterday two of my friends and I had the honor of volunteering in Flint, MI for a small NGO called Crossing Water. This is a volunteer organization started by some members of the National Association of Social Workers-MI chapter. The goal of this group is to create connections among community groups in Flint to help serve impoverished communities who are deeply affected by the current water crisis. What I saw was heart-breaking beyond words. And it was only one day there. I am trying to imagine living this way and I can’t.
We came to a low-income housing complex run by the Flint Housing Commission. I saw a case of water on people’s doorsteps that had been delivered earlier in the day by volunteers. There was no governmental system in the complex to test water, distribute water, or provide lead-testing to the children. This is a complex managed essentially by HUD. Where are the government leaders?
We knocked on one door to deliver filters and water. A young man answered who was happy to see us. “Do you have a filter?” He does, but it did not fit, so we gave him another one which would work in his unit. I asked if he had had his water tested, and he was not sure. He showed me the testing bottle he had from his aunt’s house, which was on the floor of his car, but he could not find the paperwork to go with it (which is used for tracking and data analysis). I explained how he had to get his water tested, making sure he understood to use unfiltered water that had been in the tap for at least 6 hours. He had no idea he had to do this, as he had not heard that filtered water was not safe to drink either. Children under six live with him, and they cannot drink even the filtered water. He had no idea, no one told him, and he does not have access to the internet to get all of the updates online. My brilliant friend had the idea that instead of the Governor hiring PR firms to spin his reputation, perhaps he should hire PR firms to get a coordinated message out on safety and testing to ALL the people of Flint.
The next house four young children answered the door gleefully, as if they knew we were delivering water to them. The little girl joyfully showed us her newly painted nails as we talked to her young auntie who was caring for them while their mom was at work. We explained to the aunt about how to get her water tested, and she had no idea of the process. She at least had a filter and we made sure she knew the kids could only drink the bottled water. Then, the young boy strongly and sternly put out his arms for the case of water. I said, “It’s pretty heavy, kiddo,” but he persisted with “I can do it!” I gave him the case and he proudly held it and brought it into the apartment. All I could think about was that this little boy should not have to be so strong and sturdy that his little arms have to carry a case of water for his family, he should be holding out his arms to catch a ball or grab a swing. But he was eager and ready for water. Water he should be getting out of his tap, not out of a bottle.
Knock. knock. A young mom answers her door and we ask if she needs water or a filter. She needed both, and I asked if there were any urgent medical issues. She said her baby had a bad skin rash after a bath the other day, “but it’s ok, it went away today.” NO, NO, NO, it’s not ok. In the state of Michigan in 2016, a mother should be able to joyfully give her baby a bath and trust that her baby will be safe from skin rashes. The saddest part is that this young mom just accepted this without much anger or question. She has learned to live in a world that has treated her less than for so long that she readily accepts that her home is giving her baby skin rashes.
A few doors down, a young man answers the door for his elderly male relative who is homebound. We give him some jugs of water and ask if they have a filter. “yea, someone came by one day and gave us one.” Did you know that you have to change your filter regularly, like every 2 months? He yells to his relative and asks about the filter. “no, we didn’t know that, ya got any?” So we gave him a replacement cartridge. Did anyone tell you to test your water? “Nah, how do you do that?” We give him a test kit, the instructions, and realized that the water testing being done is abysmal.
A woman runs out to our car and asks if she can have some water because her daughter is pregnant. Her apartment is not on our targeted list but of course we will give her water. “Do I need to sign something for the water?” My friend reassures her “No, no, you do not need to sign anything, we are not checking anything, we just want you to have water.” She knows that her pregnant daughter cannot drink even filtered water, but she does not know how to get her unit tested. We give her a test kit. “We need to get our blood tested, do you know where we can go?” I look up test sites on my Iphone, give her some information and tell her to take care of herself and her daughter. She thanks us profusely, and we get in our car and scream. How can this be happening?
I ask another woman if anyone from the Housing Commission has been out here. “Nah, but we got some water delivered once by a guy in a big Budget truck.” Good God, this crisis has been going on for 2 years and no one from Housing & Urban Development (HUD) or the Housing Commission has been out here to educate its residents or test the water?
Later in the afternoon we go further into the East side of Flint. The dilapidated homes are surrounded by barren lots, old abandoned buildings, a trailer park with gutted trailers tagged with graffiti all next to a junk yard and old factory. One house we are trying to reach has a disabled adult who is homebound. His dog is outside and greets us, doing his duty and barking and protecting his home. We respect him, but then I see a person looking out the window. We hold up some water, but no one comes out. I wonder, would I come out and get water and a filter from a complete stranger? Would I want to show my vulnerability and inability to perhaps walk or move, and come face to face with a stranger who reminds me daily that I cannot drink water from my own home? No, I do not think I would. We understand this, we understand that this dog is not menacing, but protecting its owner, and we gently leave the cases of water and filter on the driveway. I hope they understand we do not judge, we do not want to cause shame. We just want them to be safe.
My friend knocks on the next door, and an elderly woman doesn’t get up but let’s her peek in. “We are here with Crossing Water to deliver water to you.” She does not want us to come in and really does not want us to ask any questions. We know she is homebound, is isolated, and has cancer from the canvassing done earlier, which is why we are there. We want to make sure she is medically ok, has a filter and understands the risks. My friend tells her we have 3 cases of water for her. “I only want 2.” No, really, we have three for you. “I only want 2.” Respectfully, we leave two cases for her. And I know my friend will never be able to get this woman’s face out of her mind. What will happen to her? 2 cases of water does not last long.
Across the street we go and knock, knock, knock. A young mother of four races out to greet us in her driveway. “Oh, my god, I’m so glad to see you guys, I just had a baby 3 weeks ago and I’ve been drinking water from the tap my whole pregnancy. I don’t have a car because someone stole the ignition out of it. I have some water for the formula but I have to wash his bottles with the tap water.” We give her a filter, a test kit, and extra jugs, breaking the rules of how much water we can deliver to each house. My heart breaks. I work with infants, I know the effects of neurotoxins during pregnancy. This baby likely has had massive lead exposure that is yet to be discovered. This mom may have known the risks but HAD NO CHOICE but to use her only source of water for the last 9 months. Her older daughter is watching us from the window. She looks sad. But is she mirroring my face?
The city was eerily quiet, with a myriad of In and Out marts, gas stations, bars, vacant lots, run-down houses, and churches surrounding the East side. I wondered where all the water trucks were, where the National Guard were, where are all the governmental leaders? This city has its entire water distribution destroyed, and all we could see were private volunteers at churches and businesses handing out cases of bottled water to people through a make-shift assembly line. We can go to the Middle East, bomb and destroy entire cities, rebuild these cities, and we can’t fix this? Where are the temporary water systems that our government could set up? Where are the military personnel and trucks who could deliver cases of water and filters to people who have no resources nor transportation? Folks are supposed to go to a local fire station, pick up a filter, a test kit, some water, and then return the test kit to the fire station for testing? That’s the plan? Seriously? In 2016, that’s the plan?
I thought we’d see a local Command Central in an abandoned building, a church, or a school where there was a base of operations for water testing, water distribution, and lead testing. I thought we’d see National Guard going door-to-door collecting water samples from each home so that accurate testing and mapping of the city could be done in an organized and coordinated manner. I thought we’d see Red Cross tents throughout the poorest parts of the city. What I did see were local groups and amazing volunteers of people from churches, social service groups, and unions meeting people in their homes so they could at least have bottled water and filters. What I did see was good people trying to help, perhaps restoring some kernels of hope for people who have been beaten down. More importantly, what I did see were poor people who, instead of being outraged at the indignity and destruction their government has created for them, have been so disenfranchised and are so impoverished that they have been conditioned to believe they are not worthy of even a basic human right such as clean water.
Not only does the infrastructure need to change, but so does an entire belief system on how we treat the poor.
In the words of Hubert Humphrey, “The moral test of a government is how it treats those who are at the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadow of life, the sick and the needy, and the handicapped.”
In this city, in this state, our government has failed this test immeasurably.