Protesters say turn on the heat

CHICAGO — Angry city residents suffering without heat have joined advocates for low-income energy assistance to hold numerous protests to get household heat turned back on in thousands of homes across Chicago. On Jan. 18 they marched on the office of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, demanding he take emergency action.

The heating crisis has caused several deaths and affected over 13,000 Chicago families who have been shut off by Peoples Gas Company during one of the coldest and snowiest winters in recent memory. Tens of thousand more households are struggling with payments because gas bills have skyrocketed 32 percent over last year.

“When the cold invades your house and terrorizes the people, you have to fight,” said Curly Cohen of Affordable Power to the People (APP). “The very entity that’s supposed to protect people against gas company greed and the Bush energy policy is turning its back. It’s criminal neglect. You can’t treat humans like this.”

Protesters highlighted the death of Mrs. Borders, who had applied for assistance in early September to get her gas turned back on. She never heard a word and on Jan. 3 died from a fire. Ten percent of people who die from winter fires in Chicago die because their heat source is shut off.

Henrietta Rose, who lives on Chicago’s West Side, has been without gas since May of 2004. She applied for assistance Oct. 9 and never heard anything. Her son is also experiencing the same thing.

“There isn’t a place like Chicago where people are treated like dogs. It’s got to end and end today!” said Georgia Clayton of the South Austin Coalition (SAC).

A state law prevents gas companies from shutting off the heat over winter months. But the shut-off moratorium ends each April 1, leaving thousands without heat for hot water and cooking in the summer months and no protection for the coming winter.

Demonstrators also jammed a recent meeting Board of Directors meeting of the Community Economic Development Association (CEDA) to protest the way the state of Illinois is now processing energy assistance applications. CEDA had administered the application process through neighborhood-based sites for 14 years. The state transferred responsibility from CEDA on Nov. 24 to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), under the severely short-staffed Illinois Department of Public Aid. The program is now administered centrally without coordinating information with the neighborhood sites.

This has caused big problems. Many residents complain they get no response to pleas for emergency assistance. Advocates insist there are plenty of emergency funds available because the program has not acted on the many applications.

The protestors from APP, SAC, Romanian American Community Center, Juan Diego Center and the Polish American Association were also demanding that CEDA rehire several staff they believe were fired for being critical of LIHEAP.

The protest at the Blagojevich’s office forced a meeting with an aide to the governor, Peoples Gas, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and energy assistance advocates. It was agreed that the state would make public the names of applicants and that Peoples Gas would provide the addresses of all 13,000 homes without gas.

“This falls short of what we wanted,” said Cohen. “It’s February and there are still families without heat who have been through two severe cold snaps. We worry more will be shut off after April 1. But we wouldn’t have gotten this far without a fight.”

jbachtell@rednet.org