The Detroit Water Project, a platform to help donors pay the delinquent water bills of people in Detroit, started with a Twitter conversation.
Tiffani Bell and Kristy Tillman have never met in person, but they've enjoyed a social media friendship that began with their mutual love for technology. Last week, their back-and-forth about the Detroit water crisis quickly evolved into a discussion about how to help pay people's overdue water bills.
Emily Badger reported last week that half of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department customers have not been paying their bills — equal to about 91,000 delinquent accounts. As of April 30, those past due owed an average of $540.01.
Last week, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department was poised to cut off water for those with delinquent accounts. Perhaps due to protests and even international pressure, the water company announced Monday that it's delaying the water turn-off until the end of July so residents in the hard-hit city can prove that they don't have enough money to pay their bill.
"Both of us wanted to help people," Bell said in an interview this week. "We were both willing to pay a bill for someone. But how were we supposed to do that?"
Bell, in Oakland, Calif., and Tillman, in Boston, started to build a platform to help Detroit residents pay their water bills.
They launched the Detroit Water Project just hours after their initial Twitter chat and before the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department's postponement was announced. The project initially sought out people who needed help. Soon, their Web site added a field for donors.
Those seeking payment assistance through the Detroit Water Project must fill out a form with their name, address, account number and amount past due. This allows the project to verify their account status. Donors submit their e-mail address and the amount they are willing to pledge; the Detroit Water Project sends directions on how to pay a delinquent bill. The donor does not see the person's name, address or telephone number.
Bell has found that donors respond quickly once they have been matched with a person in need. Bell and Tillman never see any of the money.
Bell said Wednesday morning that the project has already pulled in more than 1,400 donors. "We've been able to completely pay down 16 accounts who owed as much as $600," she said. "Many donations are in the range of $20-100 with some donations going as high as $2,500."
Bell says she has seen delinquent water bills up into the thousands of dollars; she is encouraging people to donate as little or as much as they can.
The Detroit Water Project is not the only way that people can receive assistance with their water bill. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department says there are two other programs to assist people -- the million-dollar Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program (DRWAP) and the nonprofit Wave Fund, which takes donations. To receive assistance, people must prove that they are at poverty level and in need. After providing documentation, people usually receive assistance within three to seven days, says Curtrise Garner, a spokesperson for the Department.
"We all want to see the person who is in need to get the assistance that they require," Garner said.
Although Detroit residents have until the end of July to avoid the water shut-off, Bell said she and Tillman have no plans to end the Detroit Water Project project anytime soon.
"If they owe now," she said, "they are going to owe 15 days from now."