Residents heated up over lack of gas

CHICAGO — With 52,000 households’ gas shut off and home-heating costs breaking records, Chicagoans are tired of being cold in their own homes. And fingers are being pointed at Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Protesters on Sept. 30 took to the streets, blocked traffic downtown and paraded through the State of Illinois building chanting, “Gov. Rod, shame on you!” referring to the plight of 30 percent of the state’s population unable to afford the cost of staying warm during the early-arriving Illinois winter. According to protesters, the issue has been ignored.

“We need a law to protect us, the governor had three years to get it passed, and it hasn’t even come up for a vote,” said Maria Majic, co-chair of the Affordable Power to the People Campaign, who has been leading the charge to pass the 21st Century Illinois Affordable Energy Act, which would help low-income residents pay only a percentage of their income for heat.

People’s Gas is rushing to cut households off before Dec. 1, a huge problem for the disabled, infants and seniors. Under current law, heat must be provided from December to April. But, Charles Dirks, 80, has spent the past four years without heat until the end of December. Then his heat only lasted until April 1when it was shut off again.

Gas bills are notoriously high. People die in fires because a space heater, which is being used as an alternative, is kicked over. The Citizens Utility Board charged that in 2000-2001 People’s Gas struck a secret deal with Enron Energy Company that led to $149 million in overcharges.

Megan Sheffield, whose family roots go to Louisiana, says that the lack of heat and efforts to restore heat is “Chicago’s New Orleans.”

There are programs that are supposed to assist with costs, such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. At times, that isn’t enough. “When we go to fill out our LIHEAP forms, we wait a month and still don’t know if we’re approved or denied,” said Anna Ramos, who started protesting in 2000. “We went into federal court — the judge ordered a 48-hour notification and they blatantly ignore it,” added Ramos.

Affordable Power to the People isn’t waiting until it’s freezing to guarantee people have heat. “We’re determined to get homes turned back on, before it gets cold,” Ramos said.