FLINT, MICHIGAN — Pastor Bobby Jackson has been handing out bottled water to his homeless and low-income neighbors through his homeless shelter Mission of Hope for more than a year. Before the city’s lead poisoning scandal became national news and the camera crews rolled into town to document the crisis, the 67-year-old Flint native was distributing bottles of water to anyone who asked.
He began in September of 2014, right around the time that Flint switched its water supply. Back in April of that year, in a bid to save money, the state decided to change the source of drinking water from Detroit to the Flint River. The city began sending out notices that there were elevated levels of chemicals in the water, and although they didn’t explicitly mention lead, the announcements still raised concerns. “We then started right away giving [residents] safe drinking water,” Bobby said. “We are the first emergency water site to go into effect.”
The pastor’s concerns weren’t unfounded. It soon came to light that the water from the river was highly corrosive, causing lead to leach from the pipes and contaminate the city’s drinking water. Flint residents almost immediately noticed the difference –- it smelled, tasted, and looked off –- but it wasn’t until December 2015 that Flint Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency.
Before that declaration, Pastor Bobby’s volunteers estimate that no more than 75 people would come by to pick up water each day. But ever since, they see no less than 200 people a day, running through a pallet of water in a single morning or 30 cases in just one hour.
CREDIT: Bryce Covert/Dylan Petrohilos
Demand was so high that they ran completely out of water last week, in fact. But ever since Bobby’s water distribution efforts were featured on NBC News, he has gained much more visibility. Now the letters of support and bottled water donations are rolling in from all over the country. On a bitter cold morning this Thursday, a school bus full of bottled water from Pinckney, Michigan, drove up to the shelter; Bobby and a group of volunteers unloaded it into a storage facility a few minutes down the road. That center is one of just five sites the pastor uses to store the incoming water donations, 99 percent of which Bobby says come from individual donations.
“It makes me so proud to be an American,” the pastor said of the contributions he’s received. “Because we have our differences, but you put all of that aside because this is a human need.”
Mission of Hope is not in a well-to-do neighborhood. It sits on a snowy, desolate stretch of land, surrounded by crumbling and boarded-up houses. The shelter itself is small, but buzzing with activity, thanks in part to Bobby’s seemingly endless energy. He is always on the go — darting in and out of the building — and his phone rings nonstop. His volunteers pass out lead filters and plastic bags weighed down with water bottles to a steady stream of people throughout the course of the day.
Some of the people who stop by the shelter have come to rely on the water Bobby distributes. Unlike Flint’s fire stations, which give the same amount of water to all households, regardless of their size, the pastor gives as much water as a family needs for a day depending on the number of members. He’s also working to distribute water to those who aren’t able to get to the site. And those who come in and out of the shelter all have stories of how they’ve been dealing with a public health crisis that’s unfurled over a stretch of months.
CREDIT: Erica Hellerstein
Sarah (who didn’t want to share her last name for privacy concerns) first became concerned two years ago, when her six-year-old daughter, who already suffers from sickle cell disease, started getting ear infections and other bacterial infections from no apparent source. “I didn’t know how she was getting that,” she said, and the doctors couldn’t pinpoint it either. Then at some point her older son gave his younger sister a glass of the tap water to drink, which made her feel sick and she broke out into a rash, and suddenly everything seemed to line up with the water.
“That’s when I connected that something wasn’t right,” she said. “I’m like, the water, that’s exactly what it is.” She had her son tested for lead poisoning and his results came back elevated, which added to her concern about her daughter’s health.
Now she bathes her daughter entirely in bottled water, and her health has improved. But it takes a lot of resources. “I go through a lot of stuff,” she said. It’s part of what makes her happy to help Pastor Bobby hand out water to others. “I’m just trying to get everybody to have water, because I know if my daughter didn’t have bottled water we’d be up a creek,” she said.
But it’s not just the cost of water or the haul to the water distribution sites that prevent people from getting the resources they need. Genesee County, which is home to Flint, has a high illiteracy rate, which means that some people can’t read or fully understand the information that’s been handed out about lead contamination. To try to solve this, Bobby is teaming up with social workers from across the state who will rewrite the flyers so that people will understand the information they’re getting. “It’s one thing to take a plate of food and say I fed you, but if you really love them, you make sure they eat it,” he explained.
CREDIT: Bryce Covert
Brittane Lewis, another volunteer at Mission of Hope, had been using her tap water until the state of emergency was declared. But even so, she didn’t trust elected officials when they said it was okay to drink. “I never believed them when they said it was safe,” she said. “I believed that sooner or later it was going to come back dirty again.” They still use the water, at least for bathing. “You gotta take a bath,” she noted.
But Lewis is upset over what it might do to her two children in the long run. They haven’t been tested for lead exposure yet but have a doctor’s appointment soon. Even so, she’s not sure much can be done regardless of the results. “Even if they is tested, they aren’t doing nothing about you having it,” she said. “They’re just telling you you got it… oh well, what can we do about it.”
“That makes me kind of mad,” she added. “They sit there and act like they’re protecting kids, and now they’re out there saying, ‘We made this mistake and later on the kids might die,’ basically.”
While waiting in line to give his name and get his allotment of bottled water, Garlando Doxie said he had been using his tap water until about a month ago. He eventually realized there was something wrong with the water when his dogs, who weren’t originally getting bottled water, started losing their hair. “So I started giving my dogs the bottled water,” he said. “And their hair grew back.”
Now Doxie comes to Mission of Hope every day to pick up water, which he uses for everything: drinking, cooking, bathing. Even so, he said his daughter has a rash on her face. He doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to trust the water from his tap again. “I don’t trust them. Nope,” he said. “You’ve got to show actions, it’s just words.”
CREDIT: Erica Hellerstein/Dylan Petrohilos
Angela, a Flint resident who also preferred not to use her last name, regularly stops by the shelter for water. Luckily she doesn’t live far; her house is just across the street. She said her water started tasting off well over a year ago. “It started tasting like rust, just nasty,” she explained. “You could tell that the color wasn’t coming out right.” She decided to stop using the water, but not before she broke out after bathing in it. “In the center of my back there was like a green spot,” she said. “I have other sicknesses, and my resistance [is low].”
The government’s assurances that the water was safe to drink ultimately did not convince Angela. She isn’t planning on ending her visits to Pastor Bobby’s station in the near future, but is most concerned about the health impacts of lead exposure. “People are worried about the effects on the elderly and the babies,” she said. “You don’t know what [they] are going to be. I have questions.”
The deluge of donated bottled water has kept Bobby’s operations flush with enough to meet the wave of demand — for now. But it’s merely a band-aid covering a deep wound. He estimates that what he has in his various storage facilities would be enough to last for about three months. After that, he knows that the city will need a permanent solution. “We’re looking at maybe a couple of years before we drink water again,” he said. “We’re grateful for the help now, and hopefully that will give the government a chance to come in.”
“We want to make sure that we do the best we can until help arrives,” he added.