When dealing with the powers that be, it always helps to have someone who can open doors for you. This past weekend, the South Austin Coalition walked through a number of doors of the Chicago and Illinois state bureaucracy with the help of someone who's argued and PUSHed, so to speak, his way through countless doors?"the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
SACCC had been struggling to get the Illinois Department of Public Aid, which took over the administration of the federal energy assistance program this year, to deal with what they say has been an endless series of delays and just plain confusion. Finally, they decided to make a stink about it all, even if it meant getting arrested in the process.
Instead, by chance, they attracted Jackson's attention.
"We were sitting-in outside Gov. Rod Blagojevich's office [last week] waiting to be arrested," recalled SACCC Executive Director Bob Vondrasek. "Rev. Jackson had been meeting with the Governor ... and as he was leaving, came over to us to find out why we were protesting."
Jackson, who's had more than his share of sitting outside the halls of power, offered to work with SACCC on the issue.
"He said, 'Contact our office,'" said Vondrasek.
SACCC did just that, and what came out of that cooperation were two "highly successful" reconnection days, on Saturday and Monday. Vondrasek called them "one-stops," events at which low-income people seeking to have their heat reconnected had the opportunity to meet with every agency they need to in order to expedite that reconnection.
"Over 400 disconnected customers were able to have their applications checked out with People's Gas, ComEd, CEDA and the Illinois Dept. of Public Aid," said Vondrasek. In most cases, he said, those customers were able to get a turn-on date certain for restoration of their heat or electricity.
While SACCC has long been an out-front advocate on the heating assistance issue for years now, Vondrasek pointed to Jackson as the main catalyst in their recent success.
"Jesse Jackson probably brought out 100 of the 150 people there," said Vondrasek. "He can bring some people together that we can't," Vondrasek added with a touch of understatement.
Available money is not the problem this year, unlike years past, said Vondrasek. In previous years, most of the 10,000 people needing assistance would have been reconnected by November, according to Vondrasek. Rather, it has been bureaucratic red tape, bungling and serious computer glitches.
"We shouldn't be at this stage and still be trying to get people on the program," he said.
Vondrasek said that SACCC also "finally" received a list of all 103 application sites for those seeking heating assistance to file an application.
"People can call us (at 773/287-4570) and we'll direct them to the nearest office."