In Flint, MI, citizens are delivering free bottled water to their homebound neighbors, filling the void left by the state

2018-06-21T07:51:40+00:00 June 7th, 2018|

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By Jiquanda Johnson
Photography by Garrett MacLean

April Hawkins sat in an armchair across from Janet Biddulph earlier this month.

It was their first time meeting in person. The two were strangers before Hawkins reached out to Biddulph to tell her that help was on the way and the Flint resident wouldn’t have to worry about bottled water for at least two months.

Christian contemporary music was playing in the background as Biddulph sat in her living room with Hawkins.

“You can turn that off,” Biddulph said to Hawkins of the stereo.

The Hawkinses have secured free bottled water for nearly 50 households. But that’s just a fraction of the 420 households they served before the state stopped providing Flint with some $650,000 worth of bottled water every month.

For a moment it was quiet except for the sound of Hawkins’ husband, Pastor Jeff Hawkins, and a volunteer stacking cases of water against an empty wall near Biddulph’s doorway.

Then Biddulph began to speak.

“You just don’t know how much I appreciate this. I’ve been through a lot since last September,” said Biddulph through sobs. “The apartment complex we were in was condemned and you couldn’t put a filter on the faucet. I tried to keep a filter on the faucet but the faucet was plastic and I kept calling the management and asking them to fix it and they fixed nothing.”

Biddulph said she moved out of the apartment complex last September and relocated into her current apartment on the city’s south side. At 61 years old and having been blind for 13 years, Biddulph is one of nearly 4,000 Flint residents who are homebound and unable to make the necessary trips for, much less afford, clean, bottled water — a prized commodity in a city still reeling from a water crisis that began 4 years ago, when the city switched its water source from Detroit to the Flint River, resulting in high levels of lead in the drinking water, a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak, and a spike in pneumonia cases.

“I was drinking out of the tap for the last month, I couldn’t afford to buy water,” said Biddulph, whose food budget consists of $194 a month in food stamps. “I’ve been trying to buy two or three cases a month. I couldn’t believe that they cut off the water.”

Biddulph is referring to Gov. Snyder’s announcement on April 6 that the state of Michigan would cease its distribution of free bottled water to Flint residents, because, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), Flint water had been meeting federal standards for nearly two years. But critics say the MDEQ is the same agency that caused the crisis in the first place, and then attempted to cover it up — so why trust them? Furthermore, while lead content has declined across the system, only a third of the lead pipes in the city have been replaced, so many Flint residents, like Biddulph, may still be exposed.

This is why the Hawkinses, who lead Prince of Peace Missionary Baptist Church in Flint’s sixth ward, launched a program called Flint 4,000, which helps secure bottled water donations for the city’s homebound residents. The Hawkinses themselves load up their church van every other Thursday, and make deliveries to people in need.

“It’s wonderful that these people will take their money and their time to help other people,” said Biddulph. “To have someone just do for you out of the kindness of their heart it’s just wonderful. Thank God for people like that.”

“No matter how many times I do this I always cry,” said Hawkins. “You would think I wouldn’t do that but I always do.”

“It’s wonderful that these people will take their money and their time to help other people. To have someone just do for you out of the kindness of their heart it’s just wonderful. Thank God for people like that.”

With help from donations, the Hawkinses have secured free bottled water for nearly 50 households. But that’s just a fraction of the 420 households they served before the state stopped providing Flint with some $650,000 worth of bottled water every month. Hawkins said on average it cost about $48 per month to provide 16 cases of water to each household. Through Flint 4,000, Hawkins said she is hoping people will adopt families for at least six months, and that they can extend service beyond the 50 households they currently serve.

“Right now, because of funding, we can’t do it. We just don’t have the capacity,” said Hawkins.

Other activists who’ve stepped up in the wake of Gov. Snyder ending the free bottled water program say they didn’t know how heavily Flint was relying on the state.

“What I found out was that the reason why so many churches were giving out water is because most of those churches were getting the water from government-funded resources,” said Rev. Stacy Swimp of Flint’s Metropolitan Baptist Tabernacle. “Once the government-funded resources shut down then so did the motivation of some of the churches.

“I think that Gov. Snyder has made a statement to this community,” added Swimp. “He values political expediency and economic prosperity and fiscal conservatism more than he does humanity itself.”

Swimp has reached beyond city limits to fund the weekly water drives his church has been organizing since the state stopped providing free bottled water to Flint. Thus far, he has secured donations from Meijer, a regional supermarket chain headquartered in the Grand Rapids area, and from private contacts he has throughout the state.

“The moment I heard about the governor’s decision, I began to reach out to a number of pastors to see what they were going to do,” said Swimp. “I didn’t want to assume anything. I know that that’s a tremendous financial burden — no one church should have to bear that burden. And with the population exodus we’ve had over the last several years, I’m sure that the churches are feeling that financially, too, so I was trying to figure out who’s going to do what and who’s going to work together.”

The Hawkinses’ program is one of the standouts. Within days of announcing Flint 4,000 on social media, the program went from servicing 20 households to 50.

“It just took off,” said Hawkins. “But we need help, because right now it’s just me and my husband.”

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Jiquanda Johnson is a Flint-area native with more than 17 years of experience in journalism including print, television and digital media. In 2017 she founded FlintBeat.com and serves as the online news website’s publisher and editor. 

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