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A week ago, demonstrators protested Detroit’s controversial plan to shut off water service for residents with delinquent bills. Donors across the country can now help pay off the accounts.

David Coates • Associated Press,

Long-distance Twitter chat leads to donations for Detroit water bills

  • Article by: Kiratiana Freelon
  • Washington Post
  • July 24, 2014 - 6:18 PM

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 evolved into a discussion about how to help pay people’s overdue water bills.

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 this week that it’s delaying the turnoff until the end of July so residents in the hard-hit city can prove that they don’t have enough money to pay their bills.

“Both of us wanted to help people,” Bell said. “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 postponement was announced. The project initially sought out people who needed help. Soon, their website 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 phone 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 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 to 100 with some donations going as high as $2,500.”

© 2014 Star Tribune