This article is part of Thirst Week, a series that approaches the idea of “thirst” from various angles—some straightforward, others more challenging. A new Thirst Week piece will be released every day this week. Check them out here.
People knew something was wrong in Flint when the animals began to die. Then locals started breaking out in rashes. The water looked brown and yellow. Even pool water smelled so bad it made people’s eyes tear.
But city officials kept denying there was a problem.
Six months after the first reports of tainted drinking water in 2014, Stevi Atkins knew her clients were at risk. As the CEO of Wellness AIDS Services, Atkins operates the only HIV center in Genesee County, and many of the people she works with have compromised immune systems. They’re particularly vulnerable to lead contamination in the water supply, so she decided to have the center’s water tested in October 2014.
The tests came back: The water wasn’t drinkable.
“We had to make this immediate switch,” Atkins tells NewNowNext. “Even just making coffee for clients, we made sure it was bottled water. But there were very few times when people were warned about the negative effects of the water and what it could be doing.”
Flint is still fighting to rebuild after a “public health emergency” was declared back in October of 2015. All residents have been devastated, but the LGBT community was already struggling in a city that has one of the highest crime rates in the nation and limited safe spaces for queer people.
Refusing to add unsafe water to that list, the staff at Wellness dedicated themselves to providing for a population in urgent need.
Flint’s water problem began when the city switched the source of its drinking water from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The move saved money, but the new water was extremely corrosive—19 times more caustic than the water supplied by Detroit.
According to State Rep. Jon Hoadley, when the abrasive Flint River water began flowing into homes with old lead pipes, “significant parts of the pipes leached into the water, which created elevated lead levels.” At the height of the crisis, Flint’s H2O had 867 times the EPA’s maximum allowed level of lead for drinkable water.
Since 2014, 12 people have died as a result of lead poisoning from the water supply.
“This was a crisis that impacted everybody,” says Hoadley, who is openly gay. “Regardless of your sexual orientation, gender identity, age, economic status, race, or gender—all of us drink water. Unfortunately, the state refused to take action until it was too late for too many people.”
Anwar Anderson, a prevention specialist at Wellness, says Flint’s LGBT community has been hit hard. Flint is one of the poorest and most segregated cities in the nation. A majority of LGBT people live under the poverty line in a town with almost no resources for them. LGBT residents don’t have community centers or homeless shelters to specifically service their needs. There’s just one gay bar in town and, Anderson says, the clientele is usually older—over 35—and predominately white.
“There is nowhere for youth to meet and nowhere for people of color, period,” he adds. “We operate the only youth safe space here.”
The fact that Flint has few LGBT-affirming organizations became a particular point of concern during the water crisis: Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising, says that transgender women of color often don’t feel safe going to a firehouse, where water distribution centers were initially housed.
The city has changed distribution sites, but Shariff argues that this actually made the problem worse: Many of the new locations are now in churches, where LGBT people may (understandably) fear being discriminated against.
“It’s important for LGBT people to have places to go where they feel comfortable so they can get water safely,” Shariff says.
And visitors have to show identification to pick up their bottled water, which can problematic for people whose gender presentation doesn’t match their driver’s license. (The state of Michigan requires the name and gender marker on an ID match your birth certificate.)
Exacerbating the problem, Shariff claims, is that undocumented residents and people with outstanding warrants are being targeted by police at fire stations and other water distribution centers. Community members are so terrified of being arrested that Mayor Karen Weaver recently claimed 70% of Flint residents refuse to answer the door when volunteers come to show them how to install water filters.
“They don’t trust who’s there,” says Dale Weighill, Flint’s first openly gay city council member.
Stevi Atkins says the stigma of being LGBT in Flint is so high that queer people feel targeted by the very agencies designed to advocate for them. To give the community a barrier-free access point to clean, drinkable water, Wellness opened an distribution center aimed at the LGBT community.
Last year, it handed out 1,000 cases of bottled water.
The city has worked to change some of the discriminatory policies, including those about photo identification, but the services that Wellness provides remain crucial. Many of Flint’s poorer LGBT residents rely on buses to get to one of the city’s pickup sites, Anderson explains, and that limits how many cases of water they can realistically transport. For a community already on the margins, such obstacles can feel overwhelming.
“Not being able to access clean water is just an extra stress,” Anderson says. “It’s something else to worry about on top of all the things we already had to worry about—where our meals are coming from, where we’re going to sleep, or whether we’re going to get beaten up walking down the street.”
In addition to providing drinkable water for Flint’s LGBT population, Wellness runs a drop-in center for queer youth, where they can watch movies, read books, get help with their homework, or just hang out. Last year, the organization also provided healthcare to more than 230 HIV-positive clients, many of whom would have to drive an hour away to the next closest resource. It also runs Flint’s Pride festival, which was launched in 2010.
In January, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality stated that lead levels in Flint’s water had fallen below the federal “action level.” But Mayor Weaver says it could still be years before it’s safe for residents to drink unfiltered water.
A joint study from The Flint Journal and Michigan Live found that the city’s water still has higher levels of lead in it than 98% of other districts.
“We are not out of the woods yet,” Weaver insisted, encouraging her constituents to continue drinking bottled water.
Following a lawsuit, Michigan will spend $100 million over the next three years to replace Flint’s water lines. But 2020 is a long way off when you’re talking about a basic daily necessity. Residents worry that the private donations currently funding water distribution will dry up before then.
In the meantime, some of Flint’s poorest have started to be evicted, unable to pay expensive bills for water that they still can’t drink.
For LGBT people who already have few places to go, the foreclosures are the final straw. “There’s no end in sight,” says Atkins. “This has become the way of life.”
Since the publishing of this article, five people have been charged with involuntary manslaughter, including the director of Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, Nick Lyon, and the state’s chief medical executive, Dr. Eden Wells.