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Heat bills piling up with no way to pay

Updated: January 10, 2012 1:54AM



An unemployed Gurnee woman had to come up with $300 to pay a past-due ComEd bill last week. She tried all the usual places – Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Warren Township.

But Allison, not her real name, soon learned she had to join the crowd — and wait. She paid the bill, but she borrowed the money from a friend of a friend, who asked her to sign a promissory note.

Agencies that provide emergency assistance for utility bills are being inundated. It takes three months to get an appointment to apply for LIHEAP, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Catholic Charities is expending its combined monthly $3,500 in funds for emergency assistance by the first week of each month. The Salvation Army’s in-house utility fund has dried up. While it can’t help with North Shore Gas bills, it can still help pay Nicor through a company program.

“We’re out of funds until January,” said Rebecca Friede, the Waukegan Salvation Army’s coordinator of community care.

Friede, who encourages people to make a “good faith effort” and “pay what they can” said her clients report putting off paying utilities so they can keep up with rent and mortgage payments.

“We see a lot of people who aren’t earning enough,” Friede said. “It’s sad to think someone considers electricity optional.”

At Community Action Partnership of Lake County, the agency that administers LIHEAP. Executive Director Mary Lockhart White cites new state requirements that have slowed the application process. All applicants must be offered a new budget payment option called PIPP. Twelve staffers have processed about 500 applications since Nov. 1. An estimated 26,000 clients will drain $3 million in Lake County LIHEAP funds this season.

“The need has probably tripled over the last two years,” Lockhart White said. “If we have a backlog to February, what does that tell you?”

CAP is offering energy forums and it is working to educate clients on budget management.

“People know they can’t get shut-off in winter so they don’t make payments,” Lockhart White said. “Then they end up with a $5,000 gas bill. We have to teach people to cover the basics. Make sure utilities are paid, rent is paid, there’s food in the home.”

Catholic Charities Lake County’s David Nicholson-Klingerman spends his days helping qualified people apply for the North Shore Gas hardship program and sending people with giant ComEd balances to CAP to apply for LIHEAP — knowing they’ll have to get in line.

“The need is beyond the capacity to assist,” he said.



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