Margaret Curry sits on her living room couch, surrounded by an accumulation of newspapers and magazines, and watches her invalid husband Edward as he feebly eats his breakfast. Because she can no longer carry him to his bed upstairs, he spends his days on a mattress near the front windows where the morning sun warms his emaciated body.
On this chilly fall day, there is no heat in the Curry household. Mrs. Curry turns on the kitchen burners, hoping the warmth will reach the rest of the first floor by sundown, when the night cold starts to set in.
"The things that worry me is him and oil," she says, absently brushing crumbs from her husband's pajamas and bed. "If I can keep the house warm, at least I can make a go of it."
Like many of the city's elderly and impoverished, Margaret Curry, 77, and her 83-year-old invalid husband Edward could not afford oil to heat their three-bedroom Columbia Road NW townhouse last winter. Instead, they huddled near a space heater for warmth by day and kept the oven lit at night.
This month, following the suggestion of a relative, Mrs. Curry learned that the federal low-income energy assistance program will help her and her husband heat their home this winter. She first went to Operation PEP (Protection for Elderly People), a nonprofit, volunteer assistance and referral program, which alerted her that help was available. She soon learned, however, that because of federal delays in setting up regulation for the program, the D.C. Energy Office will not begin accepting applications for help with heating costs until Dec. 15, and she probably will not receive assistance before the end of the year.
"I don't know what I'll do until then," she says. A cousin has given them about half a tankful of oil to tide them over. "I'm worried about what's going to happen when the heat runs out, but I know it can't be any worse than last year."
Although the D.C. Energy Office has submitted its final plan for the low-income energy assistance program to the federal Health and Human Services agency, the District programs has not yet received its $4.3 million grant.
Last year, the program began Nov. 21 and assisted approximately 10,000 persons here. Theresa Augustono, chief of the D.C. energy office's institutions and citizens energy program, believes relief will reach more low-income families this year, including renters who are eligible for increased payments under the new plan.
"Many people depend on it from one year to the next," explained Lillian Durham of the United Planning Office, an agency subcontracted to administer the program. "But like the name says, it's an assistance program. This year it will mainly help pay your heating bill, but not your electric and water."
Last year, she says, the emergency heating program paid for "everything and anything," including weatherproofing of homes, clothing, electric and water bills. Applicants were helped as they asked for assistance. This year, applicants must submit information on their income, family size, type of fuel used and housing by the Dec. 15 deadline.
Under the new regulations, a person with an annual income of $1,534 or less is eligible for a one-time payment of up to $355, depending on the type of housing and fuel. A family of six with an annual income of $18,810 is eligible for as much as $243.
Augustono says she, like others in the energy office, is frustrated by the delay in the federal funds. "They've got legislators who don't know the first thing about being poor, who don't know the first thing about being cold."
Applications are being sent to persons who already receive some sort of public aid, but thousands of others like the Currys, who are not on any form of assistance, are eligible for help and should apply if they need it, Augustono said.
"The man over there (at PEP) told me there was plenty of money last year," Mrs. Curry recalls. "I said, 'Mister, I didn't know. All I know is that I was cold.