Until this fall, Betty Williams rarely had to worry about getting a notice threatening that her electricity would be turned off. The bill for her four-bedroom apartment in Landover was "manageable," hovering at around $40 per month.
Now Williams struggles desperately to pay a $100 electricity bill and $275 rent out of a monthly public assistance check of $375. Looking ahead to a harsh winter, she went to the emergency assistance office of the Prince George's County Department of Social Services this week to get help in paying off back utility bills amounting to $230.
"You cut back a little bit here and a little bit there in basic necessities, but after a while there is nothing else to cut back on," said Williams.
Pandora Sharpe, a friend and neighbor of Williams who visited the emergency assistance office for the same reason added, "If it gets rough this winter, I don't know what my family is going to do."
Social workers at the Department of Social Services say they are already getting signals that this winter may be especially difficult for residents like William and Sharpe.
When the surprise snowstrom struck last week, the Department of Social Services and the Department of Aging were swampled with calls.
"I don't think I've ever seen anything like it," said James Buffington, supervisor of emergency assistance in the social services department. "not only did we get a lot of calls, but we had people coming into our office with $400 and $500 utility bills. That's a big change from last year when the typical case involved only $100 or $200."
Buffington said the increase in calls for help and the sizes of the utility bills were probably a result of hikes in utility rates during the past year. The office that Buffington oversees handles about 10 requests daily from people who have trouble paying utility bills.
Many like Gloria, 46, of Landover, Don't understand why their bills have increases so much.
"We don't use the lights too much, and the only thing else that's hardly ever on is the television set," said Parker, who lives in the Stratford Woods Apartments with three of her children.
Parker, who had to pay $50 and a $250 utility bill this week or have the service turned off, said, "It's getting to be pretty bad. Half of the people I know in Stratford Woods have either had their power cut off or been threatened with a cut-off."
A major problem is that few public funds are available to fixed-income families who suffer because of utility rates hikes.
Prince George's County offers a maximum $250, once-in-a-lifetime grant for faimilies who need help paying their utility bills, Last winter the federal government offered a maximum of $250 for utility payments. State officials expect the federal funds to be available again for the upcoming cold season. The state also offers a maximum $130 grant every 12 months.
"I'll tell you who is really going to get put in a squeeze this winter," said Buffington. "The retired people. A lot of them don't qualify for either the state of local funds, because they don't have children or they don't meet the expense requirements of the local program."
"Whichever way you cut it, this is going to be a rough winter for people of fixed incomes," he added.