Barbra Watson is awakened from her sleep when the sunlight through her window blinds reaches her eyes. She eats primarily take out or fast food and must purchase food day-to-day, and never in bulk. Watson keeps the few perishable items she buys in a chilled cooler. On exceedingly sweltering days, Watson and her children must sleep at a friend’s or relative’s house. All midnight bathroom visits in their home require a flashlight. Welcome to the world of Barbra Watson.
During the last three months, Watson has been without gas and electricity in her home, so there’s no alarm clock to wake her up in the morning, and no need to buy groceries.
Watson is like many on the West Side facing a hot summer without the use of their utilities.
“It is an enormous change,” said Watson, 41, and mother of three natural children, one adopted child and another she has guardianship over. “[Electricity] is something that can easily be taken for granted, but once you don’t have it anymore and you have to adjust. It can be quite a difference.”
“All of the housework must be done during the day,” added Watson, who also suffers from asthma. “We must travel to the laundry mat rather than doing it at home, and even though we have plenty of neighbors that will offer to let us store food it their freezers, I’m always concerned about wearing out my welcome.”
A month ago, Watson received information about the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) through her church, The Christ Temple Apostolic Faith. She applied for assistance last Friday at the South Austin Coalition (SACCC), which began taking applications July 31, for qualified individuals, such as the elderly or disabled, to help pay their bills.
“During the summer of 1995, hundreds of people died in facing the same predicament as Ms. Watson,” said Bob Vondrasek, executive director of SACCC. “They had health problems that were aggravated by the heat and didn’t have the ability to keep their power on, so consequently they need to go to cooling centers or stay home, and oftentimes, they choose to stay home.”
Vondrasek said that there should be more options available to those in need.
“Most elderly people or people with health problems are not going to be just ‘gong ho’ to leave their homes and be taken to a room with a hundred strangers,” he said. “They need to have more options in place that would allow them to receive immediate acknowledgement if their utilities are turned off.”
Vondrasek added that there is currently $8 million placed into the energy assistance program to benefit people such as Watson, however, the funds are used up quickly.
“Right now, to qualify, you either must be elderly, disabled, have children under three-years-old living with you or, as in the case of Ms. Watson, have a physical ailment that requires you to avoid the current temperatures,” said Vondrasek, “which is as it should be, but it seems like what is needed is some type of posting notifying who has gas and electricity and who doesn’t. Therefore, those who are shut off during emergencies can be contacted and dealt with accordingly.”
As for Watson, she received a $500 donation from her church to assist her with the bill, and is expected to receive a $650 grant courtesy of LIHEAP. Her sister will pay the remaining balance, she said, and her oldest sons are hoping to begin working soon as she finds new employment.
Watson grew up on the West Side, spending most of her life Austin. She moved to Addison, Illinois in 2000 where she worked in the accounts payable department for two years with Abbot Industries. Afterward, she worked two years with the Village of Bensenville accounts department, ironically, allocating funds the pay the town’s accumulated bills.
“I really was not happy working there,” said Watson. “There was a lot of stress associated with my work from bosses and department heads, and I wanted to work for myself. I wanted to set my own hours and be in control of my own finances. However, things didn’t quite go as planned.”
Watson left her job in Bensenville in 2004, and shortly thereafter, left Addison and returned to Austin.
Her leftover utility bills from Addison were added to the tally of her Austin bills, and she suddenly began to fall behind to the tune of $2,100. She looked to start a housekeeping business outside of her home, but it failed to materialize. She recently made a payment to her utility company and is hopeful to have her services turned back on within a week.
“Groceries, clothes, household expenses, working on the business – all of these factors collectively caused me to become behind in these bills,” Watson said. “When you are on a limited budget at the same time [you’re] looking for a new job, it can be very stressful.”