Dispatch from Detroit: Turn Back on the Power

Last week, my good friend Pastor Ray Anderson of the House of Help Community Center in hard-hit northwest Detroit called me with some bad news: the lights were out in his building. The monopoly private utility company, DTE Energy, had come to collect on $16,000 in overdue payments and he didn’t have the money. It was Thursday, the same day that over 100 hungry families come each week to pick up food baskets at House of Help. What do we do?

He had been through this before. The building he inherited from the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) had a broken boiler system, so he had energy-intensive space heaters installed temporarily in the classrooms to keep the children in his free after-school program warm. These cost him $6,000 a month in heating bills during the cold winters. He would replace the entire boiler system eventually, he said, when he secured the building from Detroit and began renovating it. But that was only a dream at $50,000 away… What do we do?

Then, the water pipes leaked and burst. He invested $15,000 in new water infrastructure when DPS said they couldn’t help with the abandoned school building and it was on him (the tenant) to fix it. The bills started stacking up faster than the meager income from donations and sponsors. He fell behind on his water bill, but the kids still needed food and tutoring, the families still needed clothes from his free store and food baskets from his pantry. Jobs in the community were nearly non-existent. But life must go on. What do we do?

He called me one day when a water shutoff notice came. Even before the date had come for the crews to come out and cut the water, it was cut off. The taps went dry. We mounted an offensive campaign against the water department and got them to agree to cut it back on – temporarily. The bills keep racking up, and residents with no water in the neighborhood come to him for food and drink. What do we do?

Now the lights are off. We hold a candle-lit vigil with little tea votives lining the stage of this old school-auditorium-turned-sanctuary. And pray. And G-d said, let there be light…

And yesterday morning the lights were restored, after tense negotiations with DTE and donations large and small from hundreds of supporters. The halls of the House of Help are once again illuminated, shining above the classrooms where kids sit with their tutors unfazed by the business squabbles of adults. There will be more light, as we plan our upcoming crowd-funding campaign: $50,000, no $75,000… no! $100,000 to keep the lights on, pay all the bills, buy the building! Let’s do this.

Will it work? Only G-d knows. We launch in a few weeks, with an honest video plea to help the House of Help revitalize a moribund community where a 28-year old man was shot dead on the corner last week. Where chaos reins over compassion – for now. Let’s do this.

On June 1st, Detroit Workers and Builders (DWB 2.0) will launch with a crowd-funding campaign to restore power to Northwest Detroit – starting with our new headquarters at the House of Help Community Center.

To learn more and sign up to attend physically or virtually online, visit DetroitWorkers.com

The hallways of the House of Help without electricity.
The hallways of the House of Help without electricity.