Almost 20,000 families are homeless. Over 50% are unemployed. Nearly half of the City is functionally illiterate. 40% of the homes are without Internet access. The City, itself, is over $5 billion in debt, putting each family in the hole to the tune of approximately $4,500. Houses are being sold for $500, and there are no buyers. The State has installed a Director of Emergency Management with near-dictatorial power. Oh, and the local authorities have been cutting off the water supply to around 3,000 homes per week since last May. A situation which The United Nations has called "A violation of human rights."
No, this is not Zimbabwe. It is Detroit. Yet, you'd never know there was a problem this big in our own backyard because there's hardly anything at all in the media on the subject. And, why should there be? It's only the single-greatest economic collapse in American history.
Yet, more people know about Bruce Jenner's reported upcoming sex change than are aware there are currently tens of thousands of people living in, what Justin Wedes, co-founder of the Detroit Water Brigade, describes as, "akin to a third-world situation."
The DWB is a volunteer-based organization at the root of the current protest movement fighting to restore running water to thousands of the City's despondent residents. Their mission is to not rest until the people of Detroit have their water turned back on and are able to access, what should be, every person's right to clean, running water. Wedes and DWB Co-Founders DeMeeko Williams and Danny McGlashing founded the group in June of last year as a rapid relief organization based on the outlandish premise that we, as a people, cannot let others go without water. Judging by the circumstances, there are those who feel otherwise.
When I last spoke with Wedes, a founding member of the Occupy Wall Street movement and a native of Detroit, he was just about to leave to participate in another human truck blockade.
Apparently, the situation there is so bad, protestors have begun forming human chains in front of the water authority to prevent their trucks from leaving the yard and heading to do the only job they have left - shutting off more people's water supply.
In case you haven't figured out, Wedes is not the kind of guy to sit idly by while thousands suffer at the hands of corrupt government and excessive corporate greed. Moving back to Detroit at a time most folks are moving out, Wedes is the type to run toward the fire rather than away from it. And this is one, big fire.
According to Wedes, the main reasons behind Detroit's stunning collapse lie in - surprise - bank bonds. Bonds that were sold with the knowledge they came with unfathomably high interest rates. So high, they were doomed to fail from the start. But, the City bought them anyway. Sound familiar?
I'm not a financial analyst, so it's not for me to comment on the pros and cons of a particular type of municipal investment. However, Wedes does a pretty good job of breaking down the complex, years-in-the-making collapse of Detroit's economy, and its water authority, quite simply:
*The City invested in water bonds with staggering interest rates. (The reason they did this was due, in no small part, to numerous corrupt politicians receiving kickbacks from Wall Street.)
*The big banks now hold massive amounts of secured debt over the City, and, due to the high rate of unemployment, and 2/3's of the population leaving largely due to previous tax and/or mortgage foreclosures, there's literally almost no one left to pay the City's debt.
*Those who do remain find themselves in an economic black hole.
For the most part, the banks have been unwilling to negotiate. Surprise again. The interest payments alone on these bonds would cripple a thriving city, let alone one with the disastrous profile of Detroit.
In the interim, as previously stated, since May of last year, the City has been cutting residents' fresh water supply off at a rate of nearly 3,000 families a week. To date, 40% of the city is without running water. That's a staggering number, even for a city that once held two million and now claims less than half that.
Half of all homes that still have running water are currently delinquent. Thus, the daily parade of utility vehicles in the neighborhood only means one thing; shut down. Even families who want to pay their bills have been unable to, due to the systemic failure of the City's payment network and the lack of available manpower to fix it. Add to that the City's bulldozers are working non-stop demolishing houses thought to be abandoned, without so much as proper confirmation, and you've got quite the mess.
The interesting thing to note is that, while all this is happening, there are dozens of corporations who owe millions of dollars to the City, but still have their water, because they employ an army of lawyers who file mountains of paperwork with the courts, thereby getting stays and injunctions. Shockingly, the local golf course is still operating, though the families in the area around it remain cut off.
Even the governor doesn't want anything to do with a political hand grenade as volatile as this. Michigan Governor, Rick Snyder (R.), has all but removed himself from the process, hiring instead, an 'Emergency Manager' to deal with it. This rocket scientist, whose sole power in making financial decisions usurped every elected official in the city for the better part of the last two years, went as far as to recently accuse the DPW of attempting to "Photoshop" images of the suffering to make the problem seem worse than it actually is. He has thankfully just stepped down.
Even though, for the most part, the media as a whole has chose to inexplicably hit the ignore button on most of the hardships that continue to befall the people of Detroit, social media start-up 'Tsu' (Facebook with a conscience) has been working with the DWB to raise funds to assist in the relief effort.
Additionally, back in November, Federal judge, the Hon. Steven Rhodes, needed just over a minute to approve the city of Detroit's bankruptcy motion. For more than two hours, Judge Rhodes delivered an impassioned speech on the dictatorial way the city had been run and the reprehensible greed of its trusted officials, ultimately stating, "Democracy returns to Detroit."
Fixing this massive problem is obviously a massive problem in itself. At the heart of it are the banks. Who, for the most part, would rather put everyone out on the street and recoup nothing than negotiate lower, more manageable payments.
The federal government's idea of a solution is to "privatize" Detroit's water system and allow private contractors to buy the rights to the City's water. This would not only cause prices to skyrocket even further, it would, no doubt, result in more under the table kickbacks than you can shake a divining rod at.
Wedes, and many others, believe the way out is to start with the banks - who, as a whole, are already experiencing another record year for profits - forgiving the debt of the community, lowering the rates to an acceptable level for both lender and buyer, and obviously, turning the water back on for everyone. But, as most of us know, benevolent bankers only appear at the end of Christmas-time fairy tales. Still, I wish them luck with that.
The one thing that kept swirling around my dizzy head as I listened to Wedes relay one horrific statistic after another, was, in circumstances as unbelievably dire as these, "Why do they stay?" "In a word," he said, "pride."
Wedes commented that, one morning, a few days prior, he was walking down a street that had been particularly hard hit with evictions, abandonments, etc., and, out of a house that appeared to have been boarded up months ago, stepped a man in a three-piece suit.
"These people refuse to lose their dignity," he said.
Having been exposed to only a fraction of the nightmares these proud folks have been forced to endure on a daily basis, I can't imagine how any of them manage to get out of whatever makeshift bed they managed to find the night before, let alone wake each day, still full of pride, hope, and a positive attitude. Inspiring, to say the least.
P.S. If you think what's going on in Detroit is a "freak occurrence," think again. The people of Dublin, Ireland are going through the exact same thing. Greed doesn't discriminate.
To donate to the relief effort or to learn more about the situation, click here.
Follow the DWB on Twitter @DETWaterBrigade