Freezing families

Dec 11, 2002 at 12:00 am

As temperatures nose-dive, record numbers of poor people in the Detroit area are at risk of losing gas and electric service, advocates for the poor say.

“Right now we’re in an emergency situation,” says Kathleen Walgren, executive director of The Heat And Warmth Fund (THAW), which assists people dealing with utility shutoffs. “Already, we’ve helped more than twice as many people than we did for all of November and December last year. It’s a crisis.” Since Nov. 1, the charity has assisted 722 families whose service was cut off.

Several factors have contributed to the situation. One is that, as of Oct. 1, the state’s Family Independence Agency (FIA) stopped its practice of sending portions of a welfare check directly to a utility, thereby guaranteeing continued service.

A slowing economy and an early cold snap have only compounded the problems.

“You know what their problem is as soon as they come through the door,” says Selma Goode, head of Westside Mothers, a welfare advocacy group in Detroit. “They’re bundled up in layers of clothes, wearing two or three sweaters underneath their coats, and they’re beginning to smell because they haven’t been able to shower. A lot of other agencies are sending people to us, which is ridiculous, because we have no money to help all these people. We’re turning away people every day.”

The state does have an emergency relief program administered by the FIA, but its guidelines are strict and some are reluctant to use it, says Detroit’s Marian Kramer, director of the National Welfare Rights Union. “People are afraid the state’s going to snatch their children from them” if it learns the kids are living in a home with no heat, explains Kramer.

DTE Energy, parent company of Detroit Edison and Michcon, says it’s doing everything it can to work with customers and prevent shutoffs. People seeking help can phone the company at 800-545-8046 so that payment plans can be worked out.

DTE spokeswoman Lorie Kessler — who disputed the claim that unusually high numbers of people are at risk of shutoff this year — stressed that it is crucial for customers to demonstrate an effort to pay their bills.

“We can’t afford to give gas and electricity away for free,” she says.

Kessler also points out that the problem is bigger than DTE, which is talking with advocates in an attempt to seek solutions.

“Collaboration,” says Kessler, “is what’s needed.”

One thing the company won’t support is a policy employed by some states that prohibits cutting service to anyone during the winter.

“That type of moratorium isn’t viable,” says Kessler.

For advocates like Kramer, such a policy isn’t just viable, it’s imperative. Her group and others plan to push the state’s Public Service Commission to implement it.

“Things have to change,” says Kramer. “What’s happening here is inhumane and it’s criminal.”

Kramer’s group joined others in a protest last week outside DTE Energy at 2000 Second St. in Detroit. The activists will be there again Friday from noon to 1 p.m. For more information, phone 313-832-0618. THAW’s number is 800-866-8429.

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