This Issue
 
As national media attention on the Flint water crisis wanes, an organization called Crossing Water continues to bring services to residents, employing a model that addresses needs beyond access to clean water.
WRITTEN BY Calvin Hennick | PHOTOGRAPHED BY Ara Howrani

Cover: Flint resident Vanessa Terrell receives safe drinking water and filters for her faucets from Crossing Water. Above: Michael Hood started Crossing Water in 2015 in an effort to educate Flint residents on the dangers of the municipal water system as well as to help get clean, safe water to people in need.

When Flint, Michigan, resident Vanessa Terrell first learned that even boiling her water wouldn’t make it safe to drink, she told her granddaughter that they were “back to pioneer days.”

 

Terrell doesn’t own a car and relies on her bicycle to get around Flint, making it nearly impossible for her to transport large quantities of water from pickup locations back to her home. Her granddaughter, when she was only eight years old, lugged cases of bottled water home with her on the school bus, bringing two cases on days when she could find a friend to help her carry them.

 

Terrell called the Michigan 2-1-1 help line to get water delivered to her house, but she says that she’s received inconsistent service. She was taken off the delivery list several times, she says, because she wasn’t at home to receive the water. Although Terrell lives on her Social Security income, she also does volunteer work, both at a local church and at the Catholic school that her granddaughter attends.

 

“Just because I wasn’t home doesn’t mean I’m not still in need,” Terrell says.

 

While learning that the city’s drinking water contained unsafe levels of lead was a shock, Terrell says, it’s only one of the stressors of living in Flint, where two in five residents live in poverty and 35 percent of adults read at a first-grade level. “Any situation— education, medical, roads, transportation, groceries, housing—you name it, it’s broken,” Terrell says. “It needs help.”

 

The reason Terrell sends her granddaughter to Catholic school, despite her limited means, is because of what she calls the “deplorable” state of local schools. At the charter school that her granddaughter previously attended, Terrell says, there were 52 students in her second-grade classroom. Terrell’s granddaughter has been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which Terrell suspects may be a result of exposure to lead in the water, although she can’t say for sure. Her granddaughter’s blood tests came back negative for lead, and Terrell can’t afford a hair test that would show whether the girl was exposed to the poisonous heavy metal in the past.

 

This was Terrell’s situation—scared of the water in her pipes, unable to bring clean water home or get it delivered without difficulty, and worried about much more than just what was coming out of her faucet—when a woman knocked on her door last year with an unexpected delivery of bottled water. The woman was a volunteer from an organization called Crossing Water.

 

“I just liked the feel,” Terrell says of the visit. “I liked what I felt in my soul. I said, ‘How do I get involved with your group?’”

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The organization operates out of a church basement in Flint.

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Laurie Carpenter (shown standing) is the director of training at Crossing Water.

Not long afterward, Crossing Water visited her house again, this time with several more cases of water and a filter for her faucet. Terrell knew that her neighbor was in need and asked that the group bring some water to her, as well.

 

There was only enough for Terrell, and so Terrell split the delivery with her neighbor. Then, on a Saturday when the group was meeting in Flint, Terrell pedaled her bike across town “like a bat out of hell” to be among the volunteers.

 

“Crossing Water, they don’t just talk to people about the water. They’re trying to help on any level you need help on,” Terrell says.

 

For example, the group rebuilt a porch for one of her elderly neighbors. “It’s not just about the water. That’s why I wanted to be part of this organization.”

 

Rewind to late 2015, when the city was mired in the very depths of the water crisis. Michael Hood followed the news from his home in Ann Arbor, 55 miles to the south.

 

Hood—a wilderness guide, former EMT, and a nontraditional student who’d recently earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from Eastern Michigan University while in his mid-50s—vetted news articles and posted them on his Facebook page, trying to compile the best available information. One day, a friend commented on one of his posts, telling him, “Thank you for all you do for the people of Flint.”

 

The friend meant the comment sincerely, but to Hood, it felt like a gut punch. “I wasn’t doing anything,” Hood says. “I was just posting on Facebook. Any moron can do that. So that partially inspired me, or pushed me, into going to Flint. I said, ‘I don’t need to sit here. I can go in and see what’s going on there.’”

 

Within a week and a half of that visit, Hood started what would become Crossing Water, running the organization out of a church basement in Flint. Hood was horrified by what he saw as the state’s lack of meaningful action, especially around communication, and one of Crossing Water’s first efforts was a public awareness campaign. The group, partnering with a Lansing ad agency and owners of advertising space, put up 22 billboards all over Flint letting people know—in multiple languages—that boiling the water wouldn’t reduce its lead content. (Boil orders were issued in 2014 due to bacterial contamination, sowing confusion in many residents who believed that boiling water would also keep them safe from the lead that had leached into their water.) Crossing Water also printed up 15,000 postcards and distributed them to low-income households, and aired public service announcements on radio and television, aiming to educate residents about the lead contamination and point them toward available resources.

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Each weekend volunteers deliver bottled water and water filters to those residents in need.

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Michael Hood installs a water filter. Crossing Water has raised between $20,000 and $30,000; however, much of the funding has come from Hood’s own savings.

“We didn’t put our names on any of this stuff, because that really wasn’t what it was about,” Hood says. “But consequently, everyone thought the state was putting out all this stuff, because there was nothing else out there. They look like state public service announcements. We’ve done this now three times, and the last ones, we put our names on it, so people know they’re from us.”

 

It doesn’t take much prodding to get Hood to talk about his feelings on the state response to the water crisis, which he usually punctuates with a four-letter word or two. He gives the city government some leeway, saying that Flint doesn’t have the capacity to handle a crisis this large. “But the state government sure does, and we saw them sitting on their hands,” Hood says.

 

In addition to the public information campaign, Crossing Water organized volunteers to go door to door in Flint, distributing water, installing filters, and finding out what else people needed. While the city and state were also distributing water, many residents viewed—and continue to view—government officials with deep mistrust, a wariness that’s understandable when one considers how the water crisis began and how long it took officials to acknowledge that there was a problem. There were even rumors that city police were using water deliveries to serve arrest warrants, although the police department denied that this occurred.

 

Hood runs an annual free Thanksgiving dinner in Lansing, and he recruited some volunteers he manages for that program to help out in Flint. Additionally, the state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers gave Hood access to an email list of 6,000 of its members. After Hood emailed the group, around 350 social workers agreed to volunteer with Crossing Water.

 

Neither Hood nor anybody else draws any salary from Crossing Water. The organization has raised between $20,000 and $30,000, mostly in small donations, Hood says, but much of the group’s funding has come straight out of Hood’s own bank account. He’s burned through his entire life savings and retirement fund to keep Crossing Water going, and he also estimates that he’s given up more than $100,000 in lost income. He didn’t work for pay all last year or this year, and he’s put his business—Vertical Ventures, a rock climbing and wilderness guide program—on hold while he attends to Crossing Water.

 

Hood’s life partner Laurie Carpenter serves as director of training for Crossing Water, in addition to working fulltime, and the couple lives off of her income while Hood puts in 12-hour days for no pay in Flint.

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In September of 2014, a study revealed unhealthy levels of lead in Flint’s children’s blood tests.
Right: Crossing Water also distributes portable showers to the residents of Flint.

Crossing Water also distributes portable showers to the residents of Flint.

Crossing Water also distributes portable showers to the residents of Flint.

“We’ve put everything we’ve got into this thing,” Hood says. “It’s a big investment, and a big sacrifice, but the people of Flint are sacrificing a lot more than that.”

 

Perhaps because of Hood’s own background in social work (he was set to begin a master’s program in the field in the fall of 2016 but deferred until this year), and because of the heavy presence of social workers among the group’s volunteers, Crossing Water has taken a holistic approach to its work. Instead of simply bringing people water and installing filters, volunteers have tried to meet whatever needs they can for the residents they serve. Sometimes that has meant rebuilding a porch. Other times, it’s meant delivering diapers, wet wipes, toothpaste, and dental floss. The group has also brought residents bread, and rice, and bus passes, and soap, and children’s books, and clothing, and hand sanitizer, among other items.

 

Nonprofit groups are sometimes criticized when they try to tackle problems outside of the scope of their original mission, and Hood admits that Crossing Water has become “the king of mission creep.”

 

“People say to us, ‘Well, you don’t sound like you’re very efficient,’” Hood says. “And we say, ‘We’re damn well not very efficient, but we’re damn well effective.

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Vanessa Terrell continues to get support at her home in Flint. Crossing Water volunteers not only deliver safe drinking water but also look holistically at every person’s situation.

Beyond Flint

In a June 2016 report titled “What’s in Your Water? Flint and Beyond,” the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) calls lead contamination of water a “national problem.” According to the organization, which helped win passage of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s, federal data reveals a widespread health crisis that could potentially affect millions of Americans.

 

In 2015, according to the report, more than 18 million people were served by water systems that violated the Lead and Copper Rule, a 1991 EPA regulation limiting the concentration of lead and copper allowable in public drinking water. Many of these violations were due to failures to properly test water for contamination or to report contamination to state officials or the public. But water systems serving 3.9 million people showed lead levels exceeding 15 parts per billion in at least 10 percent of tested homes, the federal “action level” at which systems are required to take further steps to optimize corrosion control, educate the public, and replace portions of lead service lines.

 

According to the report, Flint is not even included in the EPA’s database of violators, which the NRDC attributes to chronic underreporting problems. The NRDC says that this suggests a “much bigger lead problem” than what is revealed by official data.

 

Lead exposure, the organization notes, can cause irreversible damage to the brains and nervous systems of babies and young children—decreasing children’s cognitive capacity, causing behavior problems, and limiting the ability to concentrate.

 

The NRDC recommends significant investments in national water infrastructure, including the replacement of more than 6 million lead service lines, the replacement of decaying or outdated parts in distribution systems, and improvements to drinking water treatment plants. The group also recommends that the Lead and Copper Rule be amended to require the full replacement of all lead service lines, to require more robust monitoring, and to require clear, ongoing, timely, and culturally appropriate public education and notification of lead problems.

We’re 100 percent effective. You might only see three or four houses in a day, because you’re there for so long. You may have to go back to a house several times to do what you need to do to make that house safe. But every house we leave, we know that household has access to clean water.”

 

Allan Wachendorfer, director of public policy for the state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, traveled to Flint with Hood before Crossing Water was started, and the two of them were promptly put to work on a water brigade. Wachendorfer has since volunteered with Crossing Water.

 

“The way [Crossing Water] is doing things is a social work model,” Wachendorfer says. “It’s different from what most other groups would be doing, but it’s what I would expect social workers to do, which is to think about the whole person. The water is just the tip of the iceberg.”

 

While no group can do everything, Wachendorfer says, he doesn’t fault Crossing Water for tackling non-water projects. “I think they can only expect to do the best they can for each family they come across,” he says. “If they can be 100 percent effective with that one family and do their best to serve that one family before moving on, that family is going to be getting more than they’ve gotten from anybody else.”

 

“The biggest thing is that it really is holistic,” says Marjorie Ziefert, an emeritus professor of social work at Eastern Michigan University, as well as Hood’s former teacher. “They don’t just go in and deliver water. They’re thinking about that family or that person holistically. Often, Michael will ask around, ‘Does anybody have a stove that they don’t need?’ There’s many a time that he has schlepped a refrigerator or a stove from Ann Arbor up to Flint, or clothing for a family, or he’ll get their plumbing fixed, or find a medical resource they need.”

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“The people going into these houses are really trained in crisis intervention,” Ziefert adds. “The water is the precipitating event, but all of the other stresses on families are compounding what’s going on with the water. It’s not just water that they need. They need reassurance. They need access to resources. They need somebody to tell them that they’re going to be okay.”

 

Wachendorfer says that, in addition to its operating model, one thing that sets Crossing Water apart is the mere fact that it’s still there. “While there are still certainly some folks that have stuck through this [crisis] all the way through, they’re few,” Wachendorfer says. “When the cameras and the spotlights were on, and it was all over the national news, everybody was showing up. Then, that started to die off, and over the last year, that has evaporated almost completely. But Crossing Water is still there. For a group of folks that primarily came from outside the city, that is unique. That is what stands out to me.”

 

Hood attributes much of Crossing Water’s success to the debriefing sessions that the group holds after each day of canvassing. The group feeds its volunteers a home-cooked meal, and then people sit and discuss the day’s events while they eat.

Crossing Water will actually say out loud that there are more problems in Flint than just the water. You can’t take care of one without taking care of the other.” –Vanessa Terrell

“It has become a really, really critical part of the success of why we keep our social workers,” Hood says. “One of the things that social workers go through is burnout. Social workers see lots of trauma, lots of really bad trauma, and they experience what’s called secondary trauma. Our model helps alleviate some of that trauma by allowing them to sit down to a hot meal amongst their comrades and their colleagues and share their stories, oftentimes in tears. They can share these stories with people that understand and care.”

 

In Flint, Vanessa Terrell continues making deliveries with Crossing Water. “I like to roll up my sleeves and help my neighbors,” she says. “I understand their fears, because I’m living the same nightmare. I do get despondent, because the struggle is hard. When I go door to door and see other people’s situations, I realize I do have it better than some. It just gives me that little kick I need to get going.”

 

Gretchen Thomas, a disabled Flint resident and recipient of Crossing Water’s services, calls the group “awesome.”

 

“I told the ladies from Crossing Water, without people helping us like you, I don’t know what I’d do,” Thomas says. “It’s great what they do. They’re taking time out of their lives to aid us, and it means a lot. They really have a heart.”

 

Now that the quality of Flint’s water has improved, one of Crossing Water’s next challenges is to convince residents that it’s safe to move from bottled water to filtered water. Although the state will maintain pickup points for free bottled water through at least September of 2017, no one expects the practice to continue forever, and many Flint residents can’t afford to purchase bottled water on their own. “We go through two cases every other day,” Terrell says. “That’s a lot if you’re paying for it out of your pocket.”

 

Terrell tries to spread the message that filtered water is safe, but she confesses that she can’t bring herself to drink it—or to give it to her granddaughter. “I try to tell people to at least try to cook with the filtered water,” she says. “But that’s asking a lot. It’s not paranoia. We were told there was nothing wrong with the water. I have little to no trust in the government when it comes to this situation.”

 

One thing in which Terrell is confident: Even as the water situation improves, Crossing Water will remain in Flint, helping residents and tackling the city’s other problems.

 

“The people that are actually here know that there were more problems before the water,” Terrell says. “The water just added to the problems that we already had. Crossing Water will actually say out loud that there are more problems in Flint than just the water. You can’t take care of one without taking care of the other.”