They were strangers to each other, but the thousands of people who gathered yesterday at the Washington Convention Center shared a sense of hope that they would get help to pay their utility bills.
Clutching windowed envelopes stuffed with overdue notices and speaking English, Spanish, Chinese and other languages, District residents applied for financial assistance and discounts that would keep the dial tone buzzing, the heat pumping, the water gushing and the electricity running in their homes through the winter months.
By late evening, 6,500 had sought help from officials at the Joint Utility Discount Day, an annual rite since 1986 organized by the DC Energy Office. This year, many residents already have been struggling with their heating bills even though the temperature has not dropped below freezing. Officials expect even more applications this year because of predicted higher fuel costs. Last year, more than 7,000 people applied for assistance, and 5,500 received help, according to the DC Energy Office.
"We have to find a way to help those who need the help," said Herbert R. Tillery, the District's deputy mayor for operations.
The District received $6.8 million in federal funds this year to operate the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which annually offers "one-time" assistance based on emergency needs, annual household income and family size. For example, a single person making $13,965 would qualify. Last year, when federal funding ran out, the District contributed $1 million to the program.
Verizon, Washington Gas, Pepco, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, the Office of the People's Counsel, United Planning Organization and the Public Service Commission helped plan and sponsor the event.
At the Convention Center, it took patience and preparedness to navigate the winding lines inside the cavernous hall. All ears were listening to WASA employee Ivan Boykin, who used a microphone to call out the numbers in groups of 50, the sole cue for applicants to rise from the rows of chairs and line up at the front of the room.
Adrian King, 41, a slight man with glasses and applicant No. 1,609, stood quietly as he waited to advance. He said he heard an announcement for the event on the radio.
When his $506.80 outstanding bill from Washington Gas was too much to pay, King, of Southwest Washington, went without hot water or heat in his one-bedroom apartment for the past five months. He makes $1,400 a month as an assistant in a downtown law firm and spends most of it on rent, back taxes and his phone bill. Then there's the $1,540 in tuition he pays to Southeastern University to continue with the computer technology classes that he started last year.
"I thought this is it. This is the small break that I needed to get rid of the huge gas bill that I have," King said. He inched up and soon was directed by a volunteer toward the hundreds of tables staffed by volunteers. King sat with Verizon employee Victor Campos, who wore a long-sleeved T-shirt with the company logo.
"Can you explain how this works?" King asked.
"This is a program for low-income people to apply for help," said Campos, adding that applications would be sent to the energy office for processing.
Because King's gas already was cut off, Campos reached for a pink emergency form that would get King's gas bill paid and the service turned back on within a few days. King also had a $220 phone bill from Verizon, but he would have to apply through the discount program to see whether he could get financial assistance.
In another corner of the room, Deborah Canty, 47, of Northwest said every bit helps. Since she became disabled in an elevator accident last year, she has been without income.
"I wish it were more than a one-time thing," said Canty, who last year received a benefit of $250. "We need this all the time."