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D.C. couple's power cut after needy guests they aided stick them with huge bill

By Phillip Lucas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2010

Martha Stewart wanted to do a good deed. So when a former friend's children were in a financial bind and needed a place to live, she let them stay rent free for nearly three years.

But in mid-June, the houseguests left a $1,200 electric bill that Stewart, 60, couldn't pay. With a heat wave quickly approaching, the power to her Southeast Washington apartment was shut off even though she is disabled and needs an oxygen machine at night for severe sleep apnea. Her husband, Bennie Dent, 72, is diabetic. The bills built up over nearly a year.

"I tried to be nice," said Stewart, a former dialysis patient. "I don't know what made them want to get up and move, but they just left."

The couple spent weeks sweltering on the porch, wondering how to stretch their Social Security checks to turn on the lights. Then the community's generosity kicked in.

Risa Hucks, 41, a secretary at Capital Pulmonary Internists, where Stewart is a patient, had tried to get in touch with her for weeks about an appointment. Once she realized that Stewart had no power, Hucks called her brother, Bishop Vincent Hucks of the Tabernacle of God Miracle Church in Baltimore, to help.

Vincent Hucks, 44, and his 8-year-old daughter, Vincina, took a generator, cooler, food and water to Stewart's apartment, in the 5400 block of Benning Road SE, a block from the Maryland border.

He visits food banks for groceries and pays for the gas needed to power the generator, which he borrowed from his car detailing business. Hucks started running the company after he was laid off last year from his job at a D.C. public charter school. He plans to plaster and repaint the walls and replace the threadbare brown carpet in the living room.

"From day to day I make it from what I have," he said. "I still try to make it my effort to help other people."

Stewart said family members couldn't help. "They don't have any money," she said. So she turned to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who she said gave her $200. He also provided a list of charities providing utility assistance, she said.

A spokesman for Fenty confirmed that he met with Stewart but couldn't say whether he offered her $200. Stewart called down the list, crossing off those without money available.

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) recently introduced emergency legislation that would prevent gas and electric companies from shutting power off if temperatures were expected to rise above 95 degrees. The plan is similar to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that many area residents used to offset high bills from the snowstorms last winter.

Representatives with Pepco said D.C. residents with life-threatening illnesses can prevent their electricity from being turned off if they tell a customer-service representative about their condition and provide a note from a doctor explaining why it needs to stay on. However, the extension lasts only 21 days, and customers must enroll in one of the company's payment plans.

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