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Public Utilities Leave the Poor Behind

My friend began her search for help with her $370 turn-off notice by calling SEATTLE CITY LIGHT (SCL). She was told that since she was in Section 8 housing, she did not qualify for any of the low income rates SCL offered. She was told that SCL did have a program called ELIA that could help her once she had come up with half of her bill amount, which was $160. Then SCL gave her a laundry list of private charities to call to ask for money to give to them...
Public Utilities Leave the Poor Behind by Kirsten Anderberg

Public Utilities Leave the Poor Behind


By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)
Written June 22, 2007

"Low Income Energy Assistance" is an interesting concept in a society with abounding "public-owned" utility companies. The utility industry in the U.S. is riddled with grotesque levels of corruption; take the Enron scandal, for instance. This corruption purposely and artificially drives up public utility bills for the personal profits of a few private energy industry executives and the poor are the front line troops, the first hit, in these assaults. Yesterday I let a friend use my phone to call places in Seattle, WA to try to find help for a $370 turn-off notice she received the day prior, from Seattle City Light (SCL). She is a disabled, low income head of household, living in Section 8 housing with her child. If she did not use my phone, she would have been standing on the street with her child in the rain, pumping fifty cents per call into pay phones, for hours. I decided to turn this into an empowering opportunity for investigative journalism for both of us yesterday. Documenting her path helped change the mood from one of helplessness, victimhood and sheer frustration to one of active documentation in an attempt to prevent other women from going through this later. This article is a reflection of the careless way we treat the poor in this "first world" country, the United States.

My friend began her search for help with her turn-off notice by calling SEATTLE CITY LIGHT first. She asked them about help available to low income families for their electric bills. She was told that since she was in Section 8 housing, she did not qualify for any of the low income rates SCL offered. (Many cities have crazy guidelines for low income energy assistance, such as Woodinville, WA has a public utility low income energy assistance program, but renters cannot use it. Only home owners can use it. Since renters are always among the lowest income population in any region, that is purposely tailored to *not* help those with the greatest need, and the Woodinville utility company fights any change to this policy, as well.) My friend argued to SCL that she had to be low income to qualify for and maintain residence in Section 8 housing, so that should be more of a proof she needed help with these artificially soaring utility bills, not something leading to exemption from help. She was told that SCL did have a program that could help her once she had come up with half of her bill amount, which was $160. This program was called ELIA. (And try finding the URL for this program on the web, they hide energy assistance!) Then SCL gave her a laundry list of private charities to call to ask for money to give to them.

The first number she called on the list SCL gave her was for SAINT VINCENT DE PAUL. St. Vincent de Paul told her to call her local church, SACRED HEART. She called Sacred Heart and they told her to call "Eli" and gave her the phone number for SCL's ELIA program. So that went full circle, from SCL's ELIA program to Saint Vincent de Paul, to Sacred Heart, back to ELIA. At a pay phone, we would now have spent $2.00, at 50 cents a call, and would have 30 minutes invested on the streets.

My friend basically started all over again at this point. She picked another name off of the long list that SCL gave her, a place called the HELPLINE HOUSE. She called them and left a message as they were inexplicably closed on a random Thursday afternoon during their business hours. She then called the SALVATION ARMY and was told they would not help her since she lived in low income housing. She again argued with them that that made no sense. She next called the Central Area Motivational Program, or CAMP. They told her they had no funds left to help people with utility bills. At a payphone, my friend would now be up to a $3.50 investment and she still had gotten nowhere.

She began stabbing at more charities on her list. She called CATHOLIC COMMUNITY SERVICES. They told her they had no utility bill help available. She next called ROAR, and they too told her they had no funding to pay utility bills. She next called FIRST PLACE, and was again told there were no funds to help with energy bills. At this point, my low income mother friend would have invested $5.00 in pay phone charges, over an hour out on the street with her child in tow, and would still have no viable leads. I only keep reminding you of the pay phone costs and time spent on streets for this type of thing because I remember too well my mom being the desperate woman on the pay phone, sobbing and begging for help, as I stood around on the street waiting for her to return short-fused to me. I remember my mom sobbing as she pumped her last quarters for our food into one more pay phone call that did not work out. And I also experienced some of this myself as a single mother in poverty without family. Much of America is equipped with personal cell phones at this point, but there are still poor folks in America who do not even have access to land lines, much less cell phones, and are still using pay phones at exorbitant prices. And pay phones are getting much harder to find, as well. My friend and I took a break at this point to defuse, eat some lunch, and relieve some of the building tension from her path to nowhere, thus far.

She went at it again. She called the COMMUNITY MULTISERVICE CENTER (dial 211) and they told her to call the BALLARD FOOD BANK. She called them and they told her she was out of their service area. She then called the UNIVERSITY CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH EMERGENCY FUND, and again was told her zip code was out of their service area. She then called SCL's PROJECT SHARE PROGRAM. They told her, like Sacred Heart, that if she got pledges from this mythical *someone else* that they might help her with some of her bill. My friend was now 2 hours into this process, would have invested $6.50 in pay phone fees for the 13 calls she made, and still essentially was nowhere near her goal of finding even one pledge towards her one week turn-off notice. Perhaps now you can understand how poor people get so disillusioned, giving up hope.

My friend will resume her search again tomorrow, beginning with a call to the Helpline House, to see if they can give her one pledge, which could lead to a Sacred Heart pledge, which could then in turn lead to a Program Share pledge, which could then lead to an ELIA pledge. But without the first pledge, hopefully from the Helpline House, she is at a complete loss of where to go next. This is not an easy path I have just described, and it is no "free" ride. I would certainly just prefer to pay my electric bill to the crap my friend endured today, seeking low income energy assistance to pay off her City's high energy bills. People act as if what she is looking for is a hand out, but she is really looking for a needle in a haystack.

My friend's loss of dignity and human worth endured in this process creates a battle within her for faith in humanity, and for hope, in general. I do not envy her path in this as an "easy free ride." She is in hell, and is sacrificing human dignity for the public utility company's private energy industry price gouging profits. This is a perfect example of the *real* trickle down theory in action. As energy industry executives are citing record breaking profits, the poor are on the front lines, begging for help all day long, to find *someone* to step up and make that first pledge.

"I Am Somebody
I May Be Poor But I Am Somebody
I May Be Young But I Am Somebody
I May Be On Welfare But I Am Somebody
I May Be Small But I Am Somebody
I May Make A Mistake But I Am Somebody
My Clothes Are Different
My Face Is Different
My Hair Is Different
But I Am Somebody
I Am Black, Brown, White
I Speak A Different Language
But I Must Be Respected, Protected, Never Rejected
I Am God's Child." - Jesse Jackson

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Copyright Kirsten Anderberg. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint/publish, please contact Kirsten at kirstena@resist.ca.

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