When Deborah Roberts escaped from the drug dealing, shootings and stabbings that were troubling her Gaithersburg housing project to a small house on a shady street in Rockville five months ago, she began to plan a better life for herself and her two sons.
Roberts said she started trying to save money to pay for a training course this summer so that she could get a nursing job. But her plans fell apart because two-thirds of the family's monthly income of $363 from Social Security had to be used to pay energy bills for the two-bedroom house on Westmore Avenue.
"It was a time: Between the electricity and the gas, they were both well over $100," said Roberts, 29. "When I first moved here, this house was like an icebox -- drafty is what it was."
Last week, workers hired by Montgomery County's Housing and Community Development Department's weatherization program chalked cracks, repaired broken glass, installed storm windows, wrapped pipes and blew 600 pounds of insulation into the attic of Roberts' rented house.
The $1,000 worth of work, which helped seal what had been an energy sieve, cost Roberts nothing. The money, from the U.S. departments of Energy and Health and Human Services, is allocated to the states and then to the counties, based on the poverty population.
Montgomery's weatherization program for low-income residents is aimed at saving each household at least $200 a year in energy costs, housing officials said.
But in the affluent county, where the median annual income for a family of four is $37,000 and the average house costs more than $100,000, county officials are also in a quandary. They are having trouble getting people who qualify for the program to apply for it.
At least 11,000 households in the sprawling suburb are believed to meet federal poverty guidelines and can get free weatherization, said program chief John Pickell. He said he based that estimate on 1980 federal census figures.
"We're making every effort to reach these people," he said. "We're not waiting for them to come knocking on our door."
To attract applicants, county housing inspectors are passing out application kits to qualified families, advertising in county liquor stores, libraries and buses, and enclosing flyers in public assistance checks and in utility and gas bills, said Pickell in an interview last week.
Still, the applications are trickling in only at the rate of about 15 a month, while the program is geared up to weatherize 40 homes a month, Pickell said.
"Some people may tend to avoid government programs because they think there are strings attached. This is strictly a weatherization program, not a housing code enforcement program or something used for government prying or anything like that. And it's a completely free program," Pickell said.
Low-income families in Maryland are in a bind, according to housing officials, because they spend about 16 percent of their incomes on energy, compared with an average of only 4 percent for other families, state housing officials say.
Since the program was begun in 1977, only 1,638 residences in the county have been weatherized for low-income families, Pickell said. This year the county has spent $59,428 of the $299,153 allocated to weatherize 69 homes, or less than 20 percent of the 1985 budget.
To qualify for the free program, for example, a single person's annual income must not exceed $7,875; a family of four's annual income must not exceed $15,975 and a family of eight must not make more than $26,775 a year. The program is open to homeowners, people who live in mobile homes and to renters, with the landlord's permission.
Prince George's County does not share Montgomery's problem of finding applicants, officials there said. They said they are currently processing 6,000 applications and have spent $117,897 of the $448,938 for the current year. Thus far this year, the county has weatherized 95 houses, said Alice Martin, fiscal manager of the low-income weatherization program run by the Department of Emergency Preparedness.
Spring's warm weather is perfect for weatherizing homes, even though ice-glazed windows and high heating bills are only a receding memory, officials said.
"The fact that the weather's good, that you're not going to have to open up your house to let the contractors in and out and also let the heat out, makes this a prime time of year to have your house weatherized," said Alan Hepler, an program administrative officer.
And energy-tight homes conserve the inner cooling of fans and air conditioning as well as the warmth needed in winter, officials said.
"A lot of houses now are air conditioned, and the same materials that keep a house warm in the winter will keep it cooler in the summer. It should be thought of as a year-round energy-saver," Pickell said. "Of course, cold weather is more dangerous than warm weather -- we could all survive a Washington summer without air conditioning, but not a winter without heat."
On Charles Street in Wheaton last week, David Melendez showed a visitor the new storm windows that he hopes will help keep the nine members of his family cool this summer and toasty next winter in their rented house.
Like Roberts, Melendez, a 29-year-old unemployed laborer, hopes his newly weatherized house will bring lower utility bills and a brighter financial future for his family.
"I tell you, I was crying sometimes, the bills were that bad," Melendez said.
They totaled more than $300 in March alone, he said.
Montgomery County residents who want information about the weatherization program should call 279-1542 or write the Department of Housing and Community Development, Room 200, 100 Maryland Ave., Rockville 20850. Prince George's County residents should call 699-2658, or write the Office of Emergency Preparedness, 5012 Rhode Island Ave., Hyattsville 20781.