Chicago area residents in need of utility assistance

January 2, 2009 5:59:53 PM PST
Hard times are leaving more people without heat in their homes this winter.Charlotte Kalandyk lost her customer service job in March and now sells jewelry and other trinkets at flea markets on weekends. She knows a thing or two about tough times.

"The house started to go into foreclosure back in May, and October we got out of that," she said.

While trying to save her west suburban River Grove home, other bills slipped. Kalandyk has been without heat most of the winter.

"I had owed at one time $2,300 on my bill, and I just kept falling further behind," she said.

With a total household income of about $3,500, most programs that offer financial aid considered Kalandyk's income too high.

"They don't have anything for anybody in the middle class that has problems," she told ABC7 Chicago.

The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance program, commonly known as 'LI-HEAP,' is usually the first stop for people looking for help to pay utilities. It's administered through CEDA, the Community and Economic Development Association.

The program received an extra $116 million in funding this year. But a family of four must earn less than $32,000 dollars to qualify.

And just days ago, Nicor, Peoples Gas and North Shore gas joined in a "Good Samaritan" program with the Salvation Army that allows low-income customers to have their gas reconnected for only 20-percent of the bill or $250, whichever is lowest.

But those programs don't help people like Kalandyk.

Noni Brennan, who heads The Emergency Fund, a non-profit agency that gives hardship grants to people in crisis, says they are seeing a considerable increase in need from people who make more money.

"We've seen calls go up by about 350 percent over the past year. We've seen people whose incomes are over 35,000 a year," Brennan said. "Requests for assistance from them go up over 60 percent."

The Emergency Fund distributes grants through 60 partner agencies throughout the city and suburbs, including Catholic Charities-Waukegan, Metropolitan Family Services and Saint Sabina church.

"Everybody is being inundated now with people who are looking for help," said Brennan.

Annette Martinez of Nicor gas says her company also has evidence that more of their customers are feeling the squeeze.

"Currently, there are about 40 percent more [customers' utilities] that are off for non-payment than there were last year," Martinez said. "That's why, earlier this year, we launched a proactive program that allowed customers that had their service severed to be restored for 50 percent of their balance.

Usually, customers have to pay the entire balance to have service restored. Peoples Gas offers grants through their "Share the Warmth" program, under which a family of four could earn more than $42,000 and still qualify.

Kalandyk took advantage of one of the programs to have her service restored. Now, she's just hoping she can keep up with the rest of her bills.

"You lose your job, and then that's it. You're down to one paycheck. You're in a hole right there," Kalandyk said.

ComEd just donated $500-thousand to The Emergency Fund to help customers whose electricity has been shut-off.

For more information on CEDA and LI-HEAP, log on to www.cedaorg.net. To find out more about The Emergency Fund, please visit http://www.emergencyfund.org/.


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