DETROIT (WWJ) - After a class action lawsuit filed against the city of Detroit, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund says that recent water shutoffs to Detroit residents were discriminatory.
Veronica Joice with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund says, "That (the shutoffs are) being done in a discriminatory fashion; and they should at least take a look at whether there's a better way to do this that doesn't affect the most vulnerable citizens — the majority of whom are African American here in Detroit."
Attorney Alice Jennings, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Detroit residents, said it's a known fact that there are corporations that owe hundreds of thousands of dollars to the city of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.
"These companies are basically Caucasian companies," Jennings said. "The folks who are being cut off are almost one hundred percent African American."
Asked by WWJ's Charlie Langton directly if this is a "racial issue," Jennings replied: "It sure is! You bet it is."
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department stopped service to about 7,200 homes and businesses in June, compared to 1,570 in the same month last year. Water was restored to 43 percent after customers paid or worked out payment plans.
At a bankruptcy hearing Monday, federal Judge Steven Rhodes asked the city for an update on the water issue, but fell short of ordering any action.
Rhodes said the people of Detroit "need their water," but added, "There's nothing for me to do about that today."
During the same hearing, water department officials announced they would stop water shutoffs for the next 15 days while working to do a better job getting the word out residents that the city will help poor people pay for water.
Talking to WWJ's Sandra McNeil shortly after the announcement, water department spokesman Greg Eno admitted there's no doubt that the department has been lax over the years, letting the bills pile up.
He said people who now owe more than they can afford are being asked to come in and apply for assistance through the Water Affordability Program.
Eno said, through, it's not just free money.
"It also teaches them, or works into their budget, monies that would be dedicated to their water bill, because they have to make a contribution every month," he explained. "This is not a program where you get everything given to you and you contribute nothing."
Eno stressed, however, that not everyone in need will be able to get help.
"We don't have, you know, a bottomless cup of funds," he said, adding that's why it's important that affected customers come in as soon as possible.
As for the claim that residents are being targeted, but not corporations who are behind on their bills:
"The balances they have accrued — and, yes, some of them are significant, and we've made that list public — had been a result of storm water runoff charges; many of which are in dispute right now," Eno said.
Eno said corporations are being given shutoff notices, too; and some, including Chrysler, have already paid up millions in overdue bills.
Monday's developments came three days after an estimated 2,000 people took to the streets downtown to protest the water shutoffs. Among them was "Avengers" actor Mark Ruffalo, who appeared unexpectedly, calling on others to join the demonstration.
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