(Update) Detroit: The Humanitarian Crisis is not Just on the Southern Border

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Benjamin G. Davis, Associate Professor of Law, University of Toledo College of Law

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” – Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948

“Hill is one of thousands of residents in Detroit who have had their water and sewer services turned off as part of a crackdown on customers who are behind on their bills. In April, the city set a target of cutting service to 3,000 customers a week who were more than $150 behind on their bills. In May, the water department sent out 46,000 warnings and cut off service to 4,531. The city says that cutting off water is the only way to get people to pay their bills as Detroit tries to emerge from bankruptcy — the utility is currently owed $90 million from customers, and nearly half the city’s 300,000 or so accounts are past due.” – “Thousands go without water as Detroit cuts service for nonpayment”  http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-detroit-water-20140629-story.html#page=2

(Best protest sign: Where do you expect us to sh**?)

One of the most celebrated cases in Ohio is the case of Kennedy v. City of Zanesville (2008) in which:

“a federal court jury returned verdicts totaling nearly $11 million against the City of Zanesville, Ohio, Muskingum County, Ohio, and the East Muskingum Water Authority for illegally denying water service to a predominately(sic) African-American community on the basis of race.  The sixty-seven plaintiffs in the case had alleged that the City of Zanesville, Muskingum County, and the East Muskingum Water Authority refused to provide them public water service for over fifty years because they live in Coal Run, the one predominately African-American neighborhood in a virtually all-white county.”  – See more at: http://www.relmanlaw.com/civil-rights-litigation/cases/zanesville.php#sthash.xTjY3Vlg.dpuf

Detroit is a predominantly African-American city, but finding intentional racial animus to get relief should be irrelevant.  Under international human rights law, it is of no moment whether the basic human right of water is being denied on the basis of animus or lack of animus.  The right stands on its own.

I think of those children in Detroit who are suffering, of those parents and families who are worrying each day as to how to have enough water.  It just appalls me that the structures that are to provide the protection of the rights of the people through the double security of federalism and separation of powers are not up to giving them relief.

Rather than forced migration from despair, it seems to me that if providing water to someone of modest means is prohibitively expensive in a part of the city, that the powers that be (at the local, regional, state and federal levels) should find those persons accommodations that are reasonable in a part of the city where these basic services can be provided – with compassion and income assistance.  That is the least one should expect in a developed democracy in the 21st century.