Many In Mass. Await The Next Blizzard With No Heat

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An oil tank in Robbin Taylor’s basement is empty and she has no money to fill it. The $900 in oil assistance she received at the beginning of winter is long gone. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)
An oil tank in Robbin Taylor’s basement is empty and she has no money to fill it. The $900 in oil assistance she received at the beginning of winter is long gone. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

It’s so cold in the kitchen of Robbin Taylor’s home, in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, that everything is frozen. Taylor picks up a plastic bottle of corn oil and gives it a shake. Nothing moves.

"I don’t know what temperature vegetable oil freezes at," says Taylor with a chuckle, "and that was in the kitchen near the stove," one of the warmest places in the house.

Taylor’s electric stove is the only source of heat on the first floor of the home she shares with her daughter and 6-year-old granddaughter. An oil tank in Taylor’s basement is empty and she has no money to fill it. The $900 in oil assistance she received at the beginning of winter is long gone. Oil companies are not required to make deliveries, but utility companies cannot, by law, shut off gas or electricity during winter months.

"I keep the stove on all the time, day and night," Taylor says. "I boil water and hope that it goes up to the bathroom to warm the seat of the toilet."

She has a space heater in each bedroom that she picked up at Goodwill for $5 each. One malfunctioned and started a fire.

There was "no real damage," Taylor says, looking at walls still streaked black from the smoke. "We were lucky. My daughter has a good nose. She smelled it. I basically put it out."

Taylor, who’s 53, has worked in tourism, but hasn’t had a job for more than a year. Lately, she’s focused on finding help with heat, calling charities and filling out applications.

"After a while you just feel like you’re begging," Taylor says. "I think I went to nine places and then I told my daughter, 'I just can’t do it anymore.' "

The cold, Taylor says, messes with her mind. She finds herself wandering the house, babbling, feeling delirious. So while she should get out and find a place to get warm, she just stays home.

"You kinda lose yourself in it, sort of become a hermit. It’s just like the three of us, three women struggling," Taylor says.

Seeking More Funds For A 'Crisis'

While Taylor feels isolated, she is not alone. Roughly 200,000 households in Massachusetts qualify for help through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The maximum benefit covers about one tank of oil. John Drew, with Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), says about 100,000 individuals and families across the state — half of those who receive aid — have exhausted that benefit.

"It really is a crisis at the level of people with low incomes, very low incomes, and their ability to survive this weather by having heat, and being able to eat and pay the rent at the same time," Drew says.

ABCD has asked the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker to add some state money for heating assistance. Last year, the state approved $20 million in spending.

"The governor understands this year's bitterly cold weather presents serious challenges for many," Baker spokeswoman Elizabeth Guyton says. "The administration will work with the Legislature to ensure that the necessary fuel assistance resources are available to the most vulnerable during the winter months."

Added Democratic Rep. Brian Dempsey, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, in a statement:

The House has always been supportive of and responsive to the needs of the low income heating assistance program, especially while the Commonwealth deals with bitterly cold temperatures. ... We will continue to monitor this program and see what options we have while dealing with the challenges of the budget deficit identified by Gov. Baker.

On Friday, the Baker administration released $13 million — what's left of the $145 million in LIHEAP money available this year.

"Our intention is that this will increase client benefits, depending on their income, anywhere from $40 to $70," says Chrystal Kornegay, the state’s undersecretary for housing and community development.

But the additional $40-$70 is just for families who have not yet received benefits. It won’t help those like Taylor, who have hit the existing limit.

So Taylor is getting creative, if that’s the right word.

"I searched the Internet and I found out that diesel fuel is what the fuel companies use for heating oil," Taylor says. So now, when Taylor can scrape together some cash, she takes a can to the gas station, fills it with diesel, and pours that into her oil tank.

"Ten gallons will heat you overnight," she says. "Nothing bad happened, we had heat for the day."

Heat for the day. A comfort many of us take for granted eludes tens of thousands of families in Massachusetts, just as Friday night's low temperature could go below zero.

Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) has more information about applying for heating assistance as well as helping those in need. You can reach them on their website or at 617-348-6559.

This segment aired on February 13, 2015.


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Martha Bebinger Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.



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