For Immediate Release: Assistance for Benton Harbor Water Shutoffs Fails Residents

Residents of Benton Harbor are receiving notices of water shut off for the first time since the city's contaminated lead pipes were removed and replaced.
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June 6, 2024

Benton Harbor, Mich. – Residents of Benton Harbor are receiving notices of water shut off for the first time since the city’s contaminated lead pipes were removed and replaced. Over the last six years, Benton Harbor residents’ water was undrinkable due to elevated lead levels. The State of Michigan and the City of Benton Harbor languished in addressing this crisis despite the promises made after Flint, ultimately requiring U.S. Environmental Protection Agency action. On top of this, Benton Harbor residents have been paying higher water bills more than any other community in the surrounding area for the past 11 years

Now, a majority low-income community of color is being threatened with water shutoffs and the only assistance available has barrier after barrier in place for families already in distress. Water shutoffs reduce flow in the system which is important for corrosion control, helping reduce leaching from the pipes, and preventing bacteria. 

The Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency (SWMCAA) is administering the “Local Water Utility Affordability Program,” which provides eligible residents with up to $3,000 to pay for arrears for water and sewer bills, up to $9,000 to address plumbing issues, and coverage of reconnection fees. Maximum allotments are per address and maximum allotments can be exceeded with a waiver. The program is running until September 30, 2026 and funds will be available on a first come, first served basis. 

Requirements to access the assistance are extensive and burdensome, especially considering the residents facing water shutoffs are already experiencing an emergency. Automatic eligibility for residents already receiving other aid such as SNAP benefits is NOT available for this program, despite that it was available for a previous water assistance program administered by SWMCAA. Specifically, SWMCAA  requires the following to apply:

  • Apply for State Emergency Relief: 
  • Proof of Identification:
    • Social Security cards for all members of the household and birth certificates for infants under 12 months. Documents for all foster children in the household (A copy of letter from MDHHS or other social service agency). Copy of I.D. of head of household and a picture of head of household holding their I.D.
  • Proof of Income: Resident’s household must fall below 200% of the federal poverty level
    • All earned income information for everyone 18 years and older who resides in the household. (Please include all documentation which apply to member of your household) All documentation below if applicable. Unearned income is counted for every member of the household. 
  • Proof of Emergency: copy of the utility bill
Number of People Living in the Household Maximum Annual Household Income at 200%Federal Poverty Limit

Another barrier residents encounter is this assistance can only be accessed if garbage arrearages are paid off. Although the city bundles water and sewer bills with garbage collection, it is not covered by the program. Thus, for residents to receive these funds, if a resident has an overdue garbage bill, it must be paid by the resident to receive support. The St. Vincent de Paul Society at the St. Joseph Catholic Parish has limited funds from donations available to assist residents to pay their garbage bills in order to access this assistance. Residents can call (269) 982-3478 for assistance with meeting their garbage bills. 

Residents who receive a water shutoff notice can also visit or call city hall at 269-927-8400 (ext. 1)  to set up a payment plan. Free water filters are available at the Berrien County Health Department for residents concerned about their water quality. 

The Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency Board’s next meeting is on June 19th, 2024 at 6 pm at the Maud Preston Palenske Memorial Library, 500 Market St., St. Joseph MI 49085. Concerned residents can join Freshwater Future at the meeting to request changes to the program to make it simpler for residents to access assistance. 

Contact information: 

Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency (SMCAA)

Benton Harbor City Hall

  • 269-927-8400 (ext. 1)

Freshwater Future 

 St. Vincent de Paul Society at the St. Joseph Catholic Parish

  •  (269) 982-3478