Bush freezes families

CHICAGO – After more than six months, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) finally has some of the funding that freezing elderly and working-class people all across the country have been waiting for. On Jan. 24 President Bush released the $200 million of the remaining $300 million that was budgeted to the program. But for some the funding has come too late.

Jan. 27 on Chicago’s Southside 37-year-old Simone Johnson-Wilson, mother of four, died in a fire believed to have been caused by an electric space heater in her two-story greystone home. People’s Energy confirmed that gas was shut off to the residence some time before the winter season began.

Elizabeth Castro, a spokesperson for the utility, while offering her condolences for the woman’s death said “Back in November we reached out to then Gov. Ryan, Mayor Daley and federal officials in Washington. … We needed those funds released.” Instead, months went by and families continued to freeze. Activists also say that three Philadelphia seniors also froze to death just days before.

But even with the release of some of the funding, Castro still describes the heating situation in Chicago as dire and said that over 7,000 premises are currently without heat.

People’s Energy, unlike other private utilities, has voluntarily agreed not to shut off gas in the winter. It advocates for more energy assistance for people who have limited incomes, and is in daily contact with community organization like ACORN, CEDA and Operation Push to get the heat turned back on in communities, even more so since funding for LIHEAP ran out in November.

LIHEAP is a federal block grant program that gives relief to low-income families for outrageous heating and cooling energy expenses mostly due to extreme weather conditions; a residence is only eligible for LIHEAP money once per fiscal year.

Activists say Bush’s freeze of funding not only causes death, but also puts people without medical insurance, especially children and the elderly, at risk of becoming sick. For much of the country this winter’s weather has been particularly harsh and with energy prices on the rise there is little wonder why so many have protested against the president’s continued withholding of such basic assistance.

Early in January, the day before the president visited Chicago, 50 protestors entered and took over the Illinois Republican Headquarters. Three seniors were arrested. Beatrice Jackson, president of the Illinois Chapter of ACORN, said, “It’s too bad when the Republicans have to put senior citizens in jail and leave other seniors without heat.”

All across the country ACORN, the Association of Community Organization for Reform Now, has been involved in the fight to turn on the heat for poor people everywhere. Other protest and takeovers were staged in 14 additional cities across the country.

Next year’s battle over heat is likely to increase for working families. Home heating oil prices are expected to increase 42 percent in the Northeast, while in the Midwest natural gas and propane are predicted to rise 20 percent.

According to Denise Dixon, executive director of Illinois ACORN, more funding may not be enough, “We need to find a solution, not just perpetuate the problem from year to year.” She continues to explain that many people end up in permanent debt to their utility companies. In Chicago the average cost of gas in the winter is over $700 a month. She also mentions that the ICC needs to ban gas and electricity shutoffs by all utilities in the winter months. One idea that is circulating and gaining momentum among grassroots groups is a percent pay cap, so that low-income people would pay according to their means.

There has been one piece of good news. Although Bush had asked congress to decrease funding by $300 million for LIHEAP in the next fiscal year, thanks to organizers around the country no decrease in LIHEAP’s funding was approved.

Additionally, there is little support for the president’s freeze on the remaining energy assistance funding. Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) met with the president personally to ask for the heat funding to be turned on, and senators from New Mexico, California and Ohio also lobbied for melting the freeze.

The author can be reached at bkishner@pww.org