Lucille Bell, a senior, and Judy Lewis, a woman with health problems, had their gas shut off recently, leaving them unable to cook and without heat. Both women had tried to pay what they could and make some type of payment arrangements. However, they say the utility company was not willing to work with them. Therefore, Mrs. Lewis contacted South Austin Coalition (SACCC) for assistance.

On April 16, SACCC held a press conference to highlight utility shutoffs suffered by West Side residents.

“They are all over shutting people off and there is no mercy,” said Executive Director Bob Vondrasek. “People will say I can pay a certain amount. They shut off people at the door. They are not going for it. When people call the utility representatives, they are told mostly they have to pay the entire bill-or a large portion-which makes it very difficult. Both ladies here today [have] bills around $1,000, maybe a little less or more. Their bills have gone way up, both utility companies [gas and electricity] have gotten increases or are about to get increases.

 When Lillian Drummond (SACCC senior advisor) said that calls to her contacts at the utility companies have been unsuccessful and most assistance agencies have run out of money.

Vondrasek told the story of one incident where they contacted a utility company on behalf of a resident on a Thursday, stating the resident did not have the money right then, but would have it Monday morning. The representative said they could not guarantee they wouldn’t shut the customer off. She paid $550 at the currency exchange on that Monday, but by the time she got back home, the gas company had turned her off in spite of the payment. Now she’s faced with paying an additional $650 more.

“So it is ruthless. With the mortgage crisis, some kind of modifications are being made for homeowners. We’re saying somebody with a $1,000 bill-this is workable. If you have low income, you can’t pay half, so we’re saying make it workable, particularly with seniors and people with health problems.”

 SACCC will be working with the alderman of the area (Ed Smith, 29th Ward) as well as Rainbow PUSH. Rev. C.L. White Sr., pastor of Joshua Missionary Church, 3255 W. Carroll, the area where both women live, said, “We need to get the payments where they can pay something on it. We did not know the utilities were going to be turned off this quick. I think they deserve a chance to work this out, and I will be getting more ministers together to help our families as best we can.”

During the press conference, Lillian Drummond noted the following facts:

Tens of thousands of low-income Chicagoans are being disconnected for non-payment on their gas and light bills.

All assistance programs have run out of money.

The next help won’t come until mid-September.

Utilities are demanding most or all of the money owed to keep the service on.

Drummond said, “We are demanding from the utility companies:

A) A three-month hold on shutoff for low-income customers,

B) A more affordable reconnection and/or repayment plan that focuses on continuation of service, not shut-offs, and

C) Raise additional funds to aid low-income customers.

 In 2001, the State of Illinois, the City of Chicago and the utility companies each put $1 million into a fund to aid distressed customers. In that same year because of extremely high utility bills, both ComEd and Peoples Gas held off on shutoffs of low-income households until late summer.

 SACCC contends that low-income families are being battered and impoverished by job loss, rising food costs, health care, and shelter, and the situation with the utility companies creates life-threatening risk.

 AWN talked with Mrs. Lewis this week and her gas is still off. Lewis said she submitted the hardship paperwork needed that was filled out by her doctor. However Peoples Gas said they could not read the doctor’s signature and the papers must be re-submitted. Lewis now has to go back to her doctor get a printed and written signature faxed back to the company.

Mrs. Lewis, who has health challenges, states she is frustrated because she’s trying to do the right thing. “The system makes things very hard for seniors and people with health challenges to function.”