District's energy office pays Southeast couple's $1,200 utility bill

By Phillip Lucas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A woman who allowed a former friend's needy children to stay in her apartment rent free for nearly three years before they abandoned her with a $1,200 electric bill had her power turned back on Monday morning after getting help with her bill from the D.C. Department of the Environment's Energy Office.

The agency runs programs that provide financial assistance to low-income District residents who need help with their utility bills and offer emergency assistance when power is shut off.

Martha Stewart, 60, who is disabled, and her husband, Bennie Dent, 72, who is a diabetic, were left with the bill after agreeing with the houseguests that utility expenses would be divided.

"When they first came in they said they'd help us out and everything," Stewart said of the house guests. "But they didn't do anything at all; they didn't give us no money or nothing."

Stewart was a dialysis patient and suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and severe sleep apnea requiring the use of an oxygen machine while she sleeps.

The unpaid bills piled up over the course of nearly a year after she fell behind paying rent and was hospitalized for a heart condition last fall. She went to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty for help and said he donated $200 and gave her a list of charities she could turn to for help with the bill.

Stewart said a D.C. Council member called Monday to let her know that Pepco was working to restore her power before she was contacted by an Energy Office representative, who told her that the agency paid her bill.

She saw a surprise outpouring of support from the community after an article about her predicament was published Monday in The Washington Post.

"I was getting phone calls by the minute from the time I got up out the bed to the time I went to bed last night," she said, "And they're still calling."

Stewart said one man called asking her to meet him at Dupont Circle with a copy of her bill, offering to pay it off entirely.

The Washington Post also received dozens of phone calls and e-mails asking how to help Stewart; some were looking to pay off the bill and remain anonymous. Bishop Vincent Hucks, 44, who hooked up his gas-powered generator behind Stewart's apartment and has been delivering groceries to the couple, was thankful Tuesday for the support.

"We cried," he said. "It's been phenomenal."

Stewart had to pause during a phone interview Tuesday afternoon to accept bags of groceries that well-wishers stopped by to donate.

"Everything's lovely," she said.

Without financial support, the couple -- who live mainly off of Social Security benefits on the 5000 block of Benning Road SE -- said they couldn't afford to make the payments, and Pepco would turn their electricity on only if the entire bill was paid at once. Andre Francis, a Pepco spokesman, said customers must notify the agency as soon as they become aware of financial hardships to set up special payment arrangements to avoid having service interrupted.

Energy Office public information officials did not respond to phone and e-mail messages about which programs Stewart and others can use to offset high utility bills during financial hardships, or how many District residents are receiving such assistance now.

Other utilities, such as Dominion and Baltimore Gas and Electric, provide similar assistance.

Stewart said she and Dent plan to keep the utility bills under control now that they're manageable once again. Hucks said he will continue to help care for the couple and renovate the apartment to make their living conditions more comfortable. "Oh, it feels great, I really appreciate everything," Stewart said. "I was in tears all day yesterday; I was so happy I didn't know what to do."

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