In the fall of 2002, Tamika’s family fell behind on their bills and the Chicago Department of Water Management shut their water off.
Thirteen days later, she managed to enroll in a payment plan and got the water reconnected to the family’s home in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the city’s South Side. This was the start of a cycle — of falling behind on payments, getting the water disconnected and paying enough of the debt to get the water restored.
That cycle repeated itself nearly a dozen times over the next 14 years, according to water department records. Tamika fell behind, the water was cut off and, eventually, she got the service restored. In all, since 2002, the city turned off the water to her family’s home 13 times, records show. The last time the city shut off the water was in May 2017. This time, however, Tamika has not been able to complete the cycle, her water service has not been reconnected.
“We lived there for a year or two without the water,” Tamika said, adding that both she and her brother had to move out in order to avoid living in their home without water during the COVID-19 pandemic. WBEZ is not using Tamika’s real name because of the stigma of living without water.
“It’s hard to go in public knowing that you’re half clean,” she said. “You’re self-conscious.”
Some community organizations and water rights activists have called on city officials to restore water to residents who don’t currently have service. They’ve argued for reconnecting service as a matter of public health. Running water is a necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic, they say.
The city has not disconnected water service to any households since Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued a moratorium on water shutoffs last year. But the city has not created a plan to restore water services to the estimated thousands of households that had their water shut off before the moratorium.
City officials told activists that they can’t identify which customers are currently without water.
“It was shocking, it was surprising, it was disconcerting and it was disappointing,” said Naomi Davis, founder of the environmental organization Blacks in Green. “The power of this pandemic is providing for us an opportunity to really see, first hand, what doesn’t work.”
And now the community organizations say they can’t wait any longer for the city to reconnect water services to these families.
Davis teamed up with Freshwater Future, a regional water rights organization, to identify those customers by launching a postcard campaign. The organizations reached out to WBEZ to obtain shutoff data from an investigation last year. The organizations used the data to mail out postcards in the ZIP codes hardest hit with water shutoffs over the last decade. Several community groups are also donating bottled water to any resident who might need it on Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. at the Blacks in Green office, 6431 S. Cottage Grove Ave.
“I’m really thankful that the community has stepped up to take care of the people without water in the city. And I hope the city follows their lead,” said Brandon Tyus, an organizer with Freshwater Future.
Davis said the city should create a plan to reconnect services and advise residents, who have had their water disconnected, to let the water run for a little while to ensure that the lead in the pipes won’t contaminate the water.
“There was no mechanism in place when the pandemic hit for accelerating a process where water would be shut on,” said Davis, who has been meeting with city officials.
Davis said her group can even help the city hire contractors to go out and reinstall water services for Chicagoans.
It is unclear how many Chicagoans are living without water during the COVID-19 pandemic. But a WBEZ investigation last year, found that since 2007, the city issued nearly 150,000 water shutoff notices — with nearly 40% of them concentrated in just five of the city’s poorest ZIP codes on the South and West sides. That data also shows that during the 10 months prior to the moratorium, the city issued at least 2,700 shut-offs to households in areas where water has not since been restored.
WBEZ filed a Freedom of Information Act request last month asking the water department for the number of water reconnections after Lightfoot was inaugurated, and the department denied that request stating that “there have been no residential restores since May 20, 2019.”
“The Department of Water Management did not go back and restore water to customers whose water had previously been shut off. However, any resident who was previously disconnected due to nonpayment is encouraged to contact the Department of Finance and enter into a payment plan and have their service restored,” wrote water department spokeswoman Megan Vidis, in a statement.
However, the existing payment plan to reinstall water services doesn’t work for Tamika, who works multiple low-wage jobs, even during the pandemic. She’s been trying to restore the service since 2017, but it’s just too expensive, she said.
Tamika inherited the home from her parents, who bought it in 1967 and eventually paid off the mortgage. She lived there with her two brothers when the problems with the water department started. One of her brothers passed away, and she moved out before the pandemic, leaving her only remaining disabled brother living in the home without water. He later moved when the pandemic started. Tamika has been renting an apartment since she moved out, but she would like to return to her family home.
“Water should be available for everyone,” Tamika said.
“They shouldn’t be cutting off the water. I understand people get behind on their bills, but don’t shut off water. People really need to have water,” she added.
María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.