February 25, 2018
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As temperatures plunge, low-income residents feel pinch

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
A man walks past trash bins on Free Street in Portland on Thursday amid the falling snow.
By Katie Zezima, The Washington Post

MILTON, Vt. – It’s only the beginning of January, and Todd Alexander has already blown through much of the kerosene used to heat his blue trailer here, where one wall is made only of old insulation and frigid wind gusts through the pink fiberglass.

This stretch of extreme cold has taken a toll on much of the Eastern United States, bursting water mains, fracturing pipes, rendering car batteries useless. The frigid weather has turned tragic with news reports of weather-related deaths from South Carolina to North Dakota,in a storm that led to rare snow in Florida and record coastal flooding in New England. Temperatures in Vermont fell below zero during the day Friday, said National Weather Service meteorologist Maureen Hastings, and were expected to bottom out at 25 to 30 below zero in parts of the state Saturday night, with wind chills 10 to 15 degrees colder.

It was so cold Friday that a tow bar froze to a plane at the Burlington airport. People waddled, stuffed with layers, even when indoors. A bicyclist rode down the street covered from head to toe, only eyes peeking out.

The cold has been especially hard on people like Alexander, who have fixed incomes or live paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford higher-than-normal utility bills.

Even with low-income heating assistance, weather like the stretch residents are enduring now has the capacity to throw the working poor over the financial edge. Heat must constantly be running to survive. Furnaces can break down. Fuel will run out more quickly than anticipated. The cold costs money.

The problem is particularly acute in New England this year, where temperatures have been well below freezing since before Christmas – frigid and unusual even for a region where people are so accustomed to winter that the roads are barely plowed. Making matters worse, New England has a major shortage of affordable housing and a housing stock that is old and, in some cases, poorly insulated.

Advocates who provide federal and state fuel assistance said many need it earlier than usual this year. Fuel companies are often backed up for days at a time because there is such a demand – federal work rules were waived for the end of December and beginning of January to allow fuel companies to deliver product around the clock.

Betsey Andrews Parker, chief executive of the Community Action Partnership of Strafford County in New Hampshire, said on Thursday the group found fuel for 10 households that ran out and did not have heat as a blizzard bore down on the area. Her staff went into the woods this week to find homeless people and bring them to shelters.

They have also been fielding calls from people whose landlords have not fixed heating units – one family was using space heaters and the oven to warm their apartment, she said.

“A lot of people say, ‘It’s New England, you should plan for the cold,’ ” she said. “The clients we have do plan for the cold. They bundle up, they have sweaters. They keep their house at 65 to make their fuel dollars stretch. When it is 0 degrees outside, your furnace will go constantly to keep it at 65, and it burns through all of your assistance.”

Here in Vermont, at least 20,000 households qualify for fuel assistance under LIHEAP, a federal program the Trump administration proposed eliminating, but was funded in the budget. Even more are eligible for one-time help from the state should they run out of fuel.

In Vermont’s rural Northeast Kingdom, where the forecast high is 7 degrees below zero on Saturday, people are already maxing out their fuel assistance, said Joe Patrissi, executive director of Northeast Kingdom Community Action. He said many of his clients pay 60 percent of their income in rent, and they will fall behind should they have to pay for fuel.

“People have got to stay warm, and the rent’s the first thing that doesn’t get paid,” he said. “You have to keep the car going, and have to keep food on the table, and you have to keep warm.”

There is concern here in Vermont about the state’s high number of elderly residents. Sara Wool, director of communications at Age Well, which helps seniors in Northwest Vermont, said the agency dipped into its emergency fund to help people obtain firewood and other fuel.

Howard Jerome, 83, makes about $1,300 a month through a combination of Social Security and pension from a calcium graining plant where he was a foreman. He received about $400 for fuel assistance this year but had to spend $290 this week on wood pellets to keep his home warm.

“I’ve never spent this much before” on fuel, he said.

Travis Poulin, director of Chittenden Community Action, which distributes heating assistance, said many people are taking matters into their own hands: buying kerosene themselves and pouring it into tanks because fuel companies are so backed up with deliveries. He said donations to an emergency fuel fund are up $10,000 this year.

Low-income and homeless people in places that don’t usually get that cold are also facing challenges.

In Atlanta, Georgia, where temperature dipped well below freezing Thursday afternoon, George Chidi, social impact director for Central Atlanta Progress, posted a photo on Facebook of “the overflow to the overflow shelter,” a recreational center converted at the last minute as the first three centers, totaling a capacity around 375 people, filled up. That’s in addition to the capacity opened up at the city’s few emergency shelters due to the freezing temperatures.

And in Little Rock, Arkansas, where temperatures had fallen into the single digits overnight, David Hall, Sr., 66, and his wife, Iola, woke up on New Year’s Day to find that their water wasn’t running, despite leaving taps on. The temperature bottomed out at 11 degrees. A plumber couldn’t come back until the temperature rose above freezing and, on Thursday, diagnosed seven breaks in pipes. The estimated repair cost is $500 to $600, Hall said.

“It’s kind of tough, ’cause on a fixed income, you’re living from day to day,” Hall said.

The Halls have been eating food provided by the Watershed Family Resource Center, a social services organization.

In Vermont, the thermometer outside Alexander’s trailer read 4 degrees below zero, and beach balls optimistically dangled from his snow-filled porch. Alexander has worked as a tile layer, a contractor and a painter, and was injured in a boating accident a few years ago. He hasn’t worked since.

“I’m on a fixed income. I’m disabled,” he said as he sat on his couch with his pit bull, Skipper.

He gets his kerosene through a program for low-income residents but is worried that if the weather stays frigid and the cost of fuel goes up, he’ll use his allotment and be unable to heat his trailer. He’s a native Vermonter and said the last winter he remembers being this cold was nearly 40 years ago.

“It’s horrible. This year has been horrible,” he said. “It’s just been cold.”

Camille Pendley in Atlanta, Georgia, Doug Pardue in Charleston, South Carolina, and Adkisson Knowles in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.

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