Written by Connie Larkman
It's been just over three weeks since Woodside Church in Flint, Mich., offered to pay water bills for neighbors in need, and the church is already tapped out.
Hundreds of people facing water shutoffs or home foreclosure have shown up by the score at the church, hoping to get a check written to help pay astronomical past-due bills and to keep the water flowing in their homes.
Back in May, the city of Flint, trying to collect from customers who stopped paying bills on water that wasn't fit to drink or use, sent out shutoff notices and tax liens to thousands who could not pay.
The Rev. Deb Conrad, the church pastor, and her congregation knew they couldn't make the thousands of past-due bills go away. But Woodside offered to write hundreds of checks to the water company (based on a formula to avoid shutoffs) to help families keep water service. She asked they simply bring shutoff notices or tax liens to the church.
They were bombarded with requests for assistance.
"The need is so great," said Conrad, "we had a constant string of phone calls and people kept showing up. It got so crazy, we finally had to say, 'Thursday from 10-1 is when we are doing this (meeting with families and paying water bills).' If not, it would just be 24-7."
"When I came into church a week ago Thursday, there were just people everywhere," she continued. "Last week I was out of town, and Jay (Rev. Jay Cummings, a retired minister and member of the Woodside Community and Social Justice Committee) called to tell me that it's just 20 minutes after 10:00 and there were already 100 people here!"
The church had a fund of more than $50,000, sent to Woodside to combat the water crisis by concerned UCC and American Baptist congregations around the country. That financial support has been used to pay the bills of more than 150 families.
"As of yesterday, we are out of money," said the Rev. Deb Conrad. "We assisted 153 families, writing checks that totaled $50,807."
The average assistance per family: $332. The highest amount of assistance paid: $1,432. Very few were under $100. The church paid only what was necessary to keep the water from being shut off—the current monthly bill plus 10 percent of the past due amount. If the service had been stopped because of delinquent payments, the formula was much higher. But the church did what it could.
Woodside Church volunteers have already taken the information of 240 more people, families who are still hoping Woodside can find a way to provide additional assistance.
We are doing this because churches across the country sent us money to help us provide water in Flint," Conrad pointed out. "If they want to send more we will continue to help families live with the reality we are in right now."
That reality is, in some spots, that the water is still not fit to drink. "Some places are better than others," Conrad said. "My water is testing fine, but other people still can't use their water for anything." The problem dates back to 2014 when lead, bacteria and other toxins poisoned the water supply. Drinking water infrastructure upgrades may take years to complete.
For now, as it strives to build A Just World for All, the Woodside Church continues to provide gallons of filtered water free for the taking for all who need it.
A grant coming from UCC Disaster Ministries will also help. $8,500 is being sent to the Genesee County Hispanic Latino Collaborative (GCHLC), housed in the church, to assist residents avoid shutoff.
"I've approved the grant and a check will be cut this week," said Zach Wolgemuth, UCC Disaster Ministries executive. He also indicated that if UCC folks around the country want to help, they can give to the Emergency USA Fund and earmark their gift for Flint.
And while there are other community programs in Flint that are offering assistance, some come with caveats that restrict who can be helped.
"It is important to note that support for residents under a program managed by the city of Flint with a donation from the United Way offers people with an income of up to 200 percent of the national poverty guidelines a dollar-for-dollar match up to $350," said Wolgemuth. "Unfortunately this program only serves a certain population because it requires residents to provide proof of 30 days income, ID and Social Security card, and current water bill account summary showing the balance due. The UCC Disaster Ministries grant to GCHLC will support those families in the margins that don't qualify for one or more of the reasons listed."
Woodside Church doesn't require proof of income or an ID.
"Our idea was to make sure people have water in their homes," said Conrad. "I now have to apply for a grant to get a 'take-a-number' machine."