No Child Without Water

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Access to clean water and sanitation is in the news. Matt Damon is even on strike over it. But we don’t have to look across the globe for things we can do. It might surprise you that here, in Seattle, some children lack access to clean water in their homes. This isn’t right, and it’s time we did something about it.

When I took over as chair of the LUC (Libraries, Utilities and Center) Committee last year, I began hearing troubling stories about children living in homes without access to clean water.

And today we heard detailed accounts of what it is like. At this morning’s committee meeting, human service providers (pictured above) told me of families using buckets filled with water from neighbors’ homes to flush toilets.  They told me how parents cannot properly wash their hands after changing diapers, can’t provide drinking water, and can’t bathe their children. They told me about students showing up at school unwashed and unclean – the result of their families water being disconnected.

What became clear is that, despite Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) offering low-income rates and lenient repayment policies, there are families in this city that lack access to potable water and sanitation due to water shutoff policies.

After discussing the problem and possible solutions with SPU representatives, I came to understand that water shutoffs are the only real hammer the city has to get people to pay. The harsh fact is that those who are economically strapped may not always consider utility bills their first or highest priority.

Although adults responsible for paying bills might rightfully expect shutoff notices, it seems unconscionable that children, who have no option over bill payments, would be deprived of such a basic necessity.

Last June, my office began working with SPU to try to find a way to ensure that no child in Seattle lacks access to clean water. Working together, we came up with a proposal that is the result of nine months of collaboration between my office, nonprofit organizations, SPU and the Human Services Department.

Under current law, a household in the low-income utility discount program (UDP) that has received notice of shutoff is eligible for an emergency assistance credit up to $340. That credit can only be accessed once per year.

That is a generous subsidy, one that reflects Seattle’s commitment to protecting and enhancing health and safety. But last year, it wasn’t enough for some. As we heard in today’s LUC committee meeting,138 low-income UDP households had their water shutoff in 2012. And about 50 percent of these – an estimated 68 homes in total – were families with minor children.

In mulling over the problem, we heard a number of suggestions, including the idea that SPU might ask regular customers to contribute to a fund to keep water service available to families who otherwise might be shut off. This idea, however, was discarded after learning of City Light’s experience with such a program, found to be more costly to operate than the alternative of simply supplying a modest subsidy.

The most workable solution is legislation that would modify the Seattle Municipal Code to make qualifying households eligible for a second emergency credit if they can demonstrate that a child—a minor under the age of 18 – is in the home. Given Seattle Public Utilities’ bi-monthly billing cycle and time frame for issuing bill delinquency and shut-off notices, this change would, in practice, allow low-income households with minor children to avoid water shutoffs.

Rationale is based on a simple concept: No child should lack access to clean drinking water and sanitation. And this would not be a large financial departure from our present system. Using 2012 as an example, a second chance for the 68 households with children, would amount to an estimated $20,000. This is a small subsidy in the context of SPU’s almost billion dollar annual budget.

I will introduce this legislation this week and anticipate voting it out of the LUC committee on April 2nd.

This is the humane solution. As Tara Luckie, Director of West Seattle Helpline –  a nonprofit social service agency – explained, “Our clients are the working poor, those individuals struggling to make ends meet while working hard and raising families. Often they seek our help due to a hardship created by an emergency situation beyond their control, such as an unexpected layoff, a medical condition or a death in the family. “

It is to those working poor, people who have sought help from agencies like Helpline, that we believe we can offer a helping hand and make it possible to say that, in Seattle, there should be No Child Without Water.