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Today is the last day Massachusetts residents can apply for heating assistance. The cold season is ending and most people have paid their gas and electric bills. But 125,000 households are late paying their bills.
As many as 20,000 of them are so late and owe so much, they're in danger of having their electricity or gas shut off. That's a 30% increase over this time last year.
And, as WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov reports, there doesn't appear to be any help on the horizon.
TEXT OF STORY:
MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The temperature is rising outside, but inside the Dorchester apartment of Patricia Cook and her two teenage daughters, the tension is rising. Cook fell behind on her gas bill this winter and now owes $1,400, or faces shutoff. But she hasn't told her kids.
PATRICIA COOK: I practically take their heads off in here. And they say, 'mummy what did we do?' 'You didn't do anything.' 'Then don't take it out on us. What's going on. Tell us what happened.' I said. 'Nothing. Everything is fine.' 'No. it isn't. I can tell by the way you're acting.' It's overwhelming.
BRADY-MYEROV: If the gas is off, her family can't cook or have a hot shower. She's already used most of her $600 stimulus check from the federal government to pay down the bill, and got money from the anti-poverty agency, Action for Boston Community Development. But it's not enough. Cook, who is 60, says her disability check doesn't cover the rising cost of gas, food and electricity.
COOK: I just had some bleak months this winter where things were a little bit more stressful.
BRADY-MYEROV: Rapidly rising energy costs (gas increased 55%) is the main reason that so many are behind. Cook's gas company, National GRID says the number of customers in arrears is up from last year. It's unclear how much because the company recently changed its billing system. David Graves, spokesman for National GRID, says the utility talks with customers such as Cook to work out payment plans.
DAVID GRAVES: Our goal is to keep service on to the customer both gas and electric service. It does no one any good to terminate service. It's expensive to send people out in field to shut service off and turn it back on again, and obviously we're not making any money if we shut service off to the customer.
BRADY-MYEROV: But after May 1st, energy companies are allowed to shut off non-paying customers. And as many as 20,000 could lose their gas or electric this summer because they are still trying to pay off their winter heating bills. John Drew, Vice President of Action for Boston Community Development, says 10% to 20% more people came looking for help this year.
JOHN DREW: The cost of everything has gone up incomes have not gone up and people are trapped between trying to pay their rent, food, kids, transportation. We have unfortunately the trio of $4 gas, $4 milk and $4 heating oil.
BRADY-MYEROV: Today is the last day people can apply for help from agencies like ABCD, which are funded by state and federal fuel assistance programs. But both state and federal money is exhausted. The state says it already extended the heating assistance program by two weeks this year and there isn't money to keep it going beyond today. Advocates have successfully lobbied for an amendment to the state senate's budget for an additional $15 million. But it's unclear if it will pass, even though the calls for help keep coming.
[sound of ABCD's phone bank]
BRADY-MYEROV: The ABCD energy assistance line is getting 300 calls a day. More are from people they don't' hear from often, such as middle class families, people working two jobs, and even renters who have had to pick up bills from their foreclosed landlords — people who have never sought emergency assistance before. People such as Patricia Cook.
COOK: I'm caught in that middle. We're not poverty stricken but we don't have everything. Laugh. Is there a difference, I'm not sure.
BRADY-MYEROV: Cook has worked out a payment plan with National GRID that she says will avoid shutoff. Right now she's glad she can turn the heat off and welcome home her older daughter from Smith College who will be working in Boston this summer.
For WBUR I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.
This program aired on May 16, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.
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