Deadly cost of heating cutoffs

Nicole Colson looks at the increasing numbers of families struggling to pay for heat in one of the coldest winters in decades--and the sometimes deadly consequences.

A West Detroit house where a fire likely originating from space heaters killed threeA West Detroit house where a fire likely originating from space heaters killed three

THREE LIVES lost over a $181 utility bill. That's the ugly truth in Detroit, where a house fire killed three people on January 5.

The deaths were entirely preventable. Brothers Marvin Allen, aged 61, and Tyrone Allen, 60, and Lynn Greer, Tyrone's 59-year-old girlfriend, were killed when the Allens' two-story home caught on fire, and they were unable to escape. The Allens' nephew was able to climb out of a second-story window to safety, but Tyrone and Marvin used canes and walkers to get around the house, and were unable to get out.

According to Detroit Fire Department Capt. Steve Varnas, the blaze was most likely sparked by space heaters running to provide warmth to the home in sub-freezing temperatures. The residents, it appears, had been reduced to illegally accessing power in order to heat their house ever since DTE Energy cut the home's electricity in June 2008. "People struggling will try to do whatever they can," Varnas told the Associated Press.

As recently as last month, DTE apparently told Lynn Greer that a deposit of $181 would have to be paid before power could be turned back on.

Charlotte Nash, Marvin and Tyrone's sister, told reporters that her brothers survived on Social Security benefits. "They were good brothers," she said from the driveway of the burned home. "They were caring. If they had a dime and you needed a nickel, they would give it to you."

But rather than examine why it is that three people could lose their lives over $181, an energy company spokesman suggested that the Allens and Greer were to blame--because they didn't seek funding assistance to help with the past due bills. "This is obviously a tragic situation," DTE Energy spokesman Scott Simons told the Detroit Free Press, "but possibly one that could have been avoided."

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THE TRUTH is that the deaths of Marvin and Tyrone Allen and Lynne Greer won't be the last ones that occur this winter as a result of people being cut off from heat in the richest country on the planet.

Dangerous cold--in some areas breaking decades-old records--has already been blamed for the deaths of several elderly and/or homeless people across the U.S.. And even those with a place to stay aren't immune to the danger, as the Detroit fire shows.

Across the country, the recession has made it increasingly difficult for people to pay home heating bills. As a result, many families are suffering in freezing-cold temperatures, unable to afford home heating oil or payments to keep their utilities from being shut off. Others, inevitably, are turning to dangerous practices like propping open oven doors for warmth, or relying on overtaxed space heaters.

According to a report last month by the Washington-based National Energy Assistance Directors Association, a record number of U.S. households received help with heating and cooling bills in fiscal year 2009--nearly 8.3 million compared to 6.1 million the previous year, a 25 percent increase, despite the fact that energy costs have dropped slightly since last year.

At the same time that more people were receiving assistance, utility shutoffs across the country actually continued to rise by nearly 5 percent--to 4.3 million in 2009, from 4.1 million the year before.

DTE Energy alone reported 221,000 gas and electric shutoffs in the calendar year 2009, compared with 142,000 in 2008--out of roughly 2.7 million electric and natural gas customers throughout Michigan. In other words, DTE cut off more than 8 percent of its customers in 2009.

Similar increases in shutoffs and requests for aid are being reported in other cities and states. In Montana, applications for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP, a federally funded program administered individually by states) are up 17 percent from a year ago.

In Bozeman, Mont., Caren Couch of the Human Resource Development Council, which oversees the area's LIHEAP program, told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that she expects the number of applications this year to double--driven by layoffs in the construction industry and those who are ineligible for unemployment benefits.

Just as food banks across the country have reported a rise in the number of formerly middle-income people seeking assistance, a similar trend is occurring with those in need of heating assistance. "We're also seeing households who have never had any type of assistance or social service programs, people who own larger or more expensive homes who are struggling because they don't have the same incomes they used to have," Couch said. "They're grasping at any program that might be out there."

In Hempstead, N.Y., LIHEAP program director Liz McDermott told NBCNewYork.com that her hotline receives 300 calls a day from people seeking help to fill their oil tanks or pay their gas bills. "We've had a number of calls from frustrated people on the verge of tears," said McDermott.

In Chicago, power company ComEd is shutting off service in record numbers. According to a local CBS news report last month, "ComEd's net power shutoffs have soared this year; from 39,000 in 2008 to more than 67,000 through October 2009."

Virgina Rivers was one of those trying to get by in frigid weather without heat. Walking with a crutch because of a shooting that injured her spine nearly two decades ago, Rivers recently told reporter Mike Flannery that she had been cut off from both gas and electric in August. "It hurts," she said. "I literally sat here last night and I cried, just for the thought that [the bills] are just so high, I really can't afford it."

Another woman, Veronica Hoskins, who raises her grandson, told Flannery that she was forced to seek help with her bills from Lutheran Social Services. ComEd had been demanding more than $626, while Peoples Gas demanded more than $117. Both utilities were threatening to shut off service.

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AID AGENCIES like Lutheran Social Services have become an important lifeline for many. But they're feeling the pinch themselves, as the federal government and cash-strapped states cut funding.

According to Flannery, Lutheran has had a hard time making its payroll--because the state of Illinois has failed to pay the organization $8 million since last summer. "We're spiraling out of control in this state, with our state services," Lutheran Social Services' Jo Ann Dollard told Flannery. "It's a ripple effect. It affects companies like ComEd. And it affects the people we're serving,"

In Pennsylvania, a $56 million decrease in federal funding for the LIHEAP program this year means that the state is tightening eligibility requirements--so fewer people will qualify for assistance programs than last year. The maximum annual income allowed for a family of four to receive assistance is now $33,075--over $11,000 less than last year's limit.

Additionally, the state is decreasing the size of so-called "crisis grants"--intended for households in the direst need that have no source of heat and face a health- or life-threatening emergency--from $800 last year to $400 this year. The state also delayed the opening for crisis grant applications by an additional two months this year, leaving many families scrambling in emergency situations.

"We are getting calls every day from people with no oil," Fred Lettieri, executive director of the Scranton-Lackawanna Human Development Agency, which administers LIHEAP in Lackawanna County, Pa., told the Scranton Times-Tribune. "People don't want to be in this position, but they are. We should be providing more help; instead, we're providing less."

In December, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission announced that 17,037 Pennsylvania households started winter with their heat cut off--an 18.5 percent increase over last year.

Sixty-five-year-old Vietnam veteran Grant Dunlap and his wife Deborah sat in a waiting room at Carolina Community Actions in Rock Hill, S.C., this week, waiting to ask for heating assistance. The couple, forced to get by on Grant's $1,068 a month in disability after Deborah was laid off in November, brought their bank statements showing that they had just $1.62 in their account.

In her hands, Deborah held an electric bill of $285, with $192 past due. Their cutoff date was scheduled for that day. "We've been worried about it for days," Deborah told the Rock Hill Herald. "We had no Christmas."

In a country that squanders nearly $2 billion a week on its wars, it's criminal that Grant and Deborah Dunlap--and millions more families like them--should be forced to worry about being able to afford such a fundamental necessity of life.