Detroit's environmental groups begin a COVID-19 response that could last months

March 19, 2020 | Brian Allnutt

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Volunteers at the Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry From left to right—Phyliss West, Martha Woolfork, Rev. Roslyn Bouier, M. Div, Mamie Floyd, Minister Theretha Dixon, and Brenda Chambers. Photo by Nina Ignaczak. Photo taken before the Covid-19 crisis.

The Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club had planned this week for talks with City of Detroit officials around a proposed River Protection Ordinance, but things changed quickly. 

“Everything in terms of environmental organizing is on hold just because there’s so much going on around the COVID-19 crisis,” Justin Onwenu, an organizer with the group says. 

Instead, the Sierra Club is considering how they can use their network to help communities struggling to cope with the growing pandemic. Other environmental and water groups in the city are also doing what they can. They're developing policy proposals and demands for public officials and funneling money to mutual aid efforts and to foodbanks as they scale up their operations to meet what could be a huge demand as people are cut off from schools, jobs, and other resources.

For now, the Sierra Club is joining up with other groups like the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition (MEJC), Sunrise Movement Detroit and We the People of Detroit on the Michigan Covid 19 Community Response, an effort to provide resources to vulnerable community members and direct policy demands to state authorities. On Wednesday the March 17th, the coalition sent a letter to Governor Whitmer asking her to use her executive authority to ensure access to healthcare for vulnerable citizens and keep people in their homes among other measures. 

“This crisis has revealed existing policy gaps (including) water shutoffs, utility shut-offs and lack of access to health care,” Onwenu says. “It's revealed what advocates have been sounding the alarm on for years.”

The crisis has also shown that governments have substantial power to remedy these problems—at least for the time being—when the political will exists. Just in the past week, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) has agreed to reconnect water for a small fee that the state will cover. Wayne County announced a moratorium on foreclosures for the year. Detroit has ordered a halt to evictions. And Republicans are openly talking about measures that sound a lot like universal basic income. Onwenu says the crisis demonstrates that “we're capable of doing a lot more than what we've historically done.”

The Sierra Club also plans to hold government accountable during the crisis, pushing to ensure that permits aren’t being issued for polluting industry when public meetings aren’t possible. They are also emphasizing how coronavirus reinforces that pandemics are a climate issue and that preventing future emergencies like Covid-19 requires keeping climate change to a minimum.

“We can't go back to business as usual,” Bridget Vial, Energy Democracy Organizer for MEJC says. “This is an opportunity to reassess where we're moving to.” 

Moreover, with the widespread hardship that’s likely to result from temporary or permanent closure of so many businesses, efforts that the MEJC is involved in–like keeping utility bills affordable–could become even more important. Instead of fighting DTE’s latest rate-hike, they may be trying to block rate hikes altogether. 

In the short term, groups like MEJC are still trying to figure out how to fit their networks into the community response to the coronavirus. 

“Overnight, all of these organizations and individuals are trying to self-organize,” Vial says. And to make things more difficult, they’re doing all of this work by conference call. Members are wondering how much they will actually be able to help without becoming vectors for the virus themselves or having their efforts rendered moot by new travel restrictions or orders to shelter in place. 

BT Irwin who directs the interfaith environmental group Voices for Earth Justice is trying to figure out how to connect his network of several thousand people with the immediate needs of residents near their site in Northwest Detroit. He sees his group partnering with organizations like Meals on Wheels or the Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry by providing produce from their garden, donating purchased food items, or providing direct funding. He’s also looking to use these partners to create a list of people who need food and other supplies delivered, using the group’s volunteer network. However–as with so much else in this crisis–the protocol for volunteer efforts is evolving and could change further if shortages of hand sanitizer and other protective equipment continue. 

Meanwhile, Reverend Roslyn Bouier, who runs the Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry, wonders if she will have enough food, water, and sanitary supplies to serve a community where demand could explode. Bouier was able to obtain an increase in funding from the Max and Marjorie Fisher Foundation but says “demand has already gone up” as a result of children missing out on school lunches and parents being laid off. 

Reverend Roslyn Bouier at the Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry. Photo by Nina Ignaczak.

“People are terrified,” she says, scared that landlords won’t abide by Detroit’s order to stop evictions or that the disease will spread in a community that has been hit especially hard by the water shutoffs. Among other things, this has produced a situation where, Bouier says, “fecal waste has to be thrown into the street because nobody has a toilet to flush it down.” Research has shown that this could be a significant vector for transmitting the coronavirus.  

Bouier is angered by the city and state’s slow reaction to the crisis in regard to water shutoffs. Although DWSD has begun reconnecting water to households, so far only about 290 of a potential 3,600 customers have had their service reconnected.

“What did we think what was going to happen?” she asks of a fix that lags behind a rapid increase of cases in Michigan. 

One way or another she and others in frontline communities will continue doing their work through mutual aid forums, time banks and Facebook groups that are helping vulnerable residents in an effort that could likely last for months

“This is a marathon,” Bouier says. “This is a really, really big marathon.”