Safe and warm

Human beings are not meant to live in the cold. Some of us may enjoy living in cooler regions, but I doubt anyone enjoys spending any real amount of time exposed to the elements without proper clothing.

Yet routinely the poor and the homeless are left ill prepared to shelter themselves from the cold. I recently stumbled across video footage of the last hours of a homeless Vancouver woman’s life, filmed by Kristy Matthews. Shortly after the video was taken last December, the woman died in a fire caused when the candles she was using in a desperate attempt to keep warm set her cart on fire. Earlier this month the Vancouver Sun featured an article on the circumstances surrounding the woman’s untimely death.

Though I often struggle with just how much assistance I can provide someone on the street–after all I can not and should not be expected to help everyone–I doubt I could have ignored a woman in bare feet in the brutal cold. It is heartbreaking and deeply disturbing that we have abandoned those most in need in this world.

But those living on the street are not the only ones who must struggle to keep warm. According to a survey released on Dec. 18 by the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, the number of households receiving heating assistance through the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) reached record levels for the second year in a row, increasing from 6.1 million to 8.3 million for 2009. LIHEAP is the primary program in the United States to help low-income individuals and families struggling with their utility payments.

This is not good news as the number of families struggling continues to rise. NEADA is projecting an increase of 20% in the number of families applying for assistance for 2010, noting in a press release that, “The current funding level will not be sufficient to meet the need if current trends continue. In the absence of supplemental funding, states will have few choices other than to reduce benefits, tighten eligibility requirements or close programs early.”

While I understand that electric utilities are no in the business of supplying power for free, it is unacceptable that anyone would be left in the cold. Yet utility shut-offs and arrearages remain high. Some 4.3 million households experienced shut off from power shut-offs in 2009, up from 4.1 million in 2008. These families owed a total of $1.2 billion, with the average amount owed $279. At a time when many of the top executives at bailed out banks stand to make millions in bonuses, it is a national disgrace that millions in this country cannot afford to pay for heat.

–by Jennifer E. Cooper