Jornell Holley has been without heat for a year now. One day late last fall, she came home from work to find the gas in her apartment had been cut off. Although discovering the apartment cold was initially a shock, she realized it was inevitable. Holley receives $545 a month in disability benefits, and juggling utility bills has always been a struggle. But a spike in gas costs over the previous few years, coupled with a string of major health problems, left her far behind on payments.

Last winter, she was awarded a grant from the publicly funded Low Income Heat Energy Assistance Program, but it was not enough to clear her $836 balance with Peoples Energy, which supplies gas to about a million Chicago homes.

Customers receive three notices of overdue bills, according to Elizabeth Castro, manager of public and community relations. If payments have not been made, service is cut off. However, Peoples Energy won’t disconnect service between Dec. 1 and March 31.

Holley, though, said she had no way to keep up. “When you’re low-income, the utilities are just astronomical,” Holley said. Then, since she wasn’t able to cover the remaining $500 balance on her account, she ended up not getting the grant. After receiving approval for awards, families typically have 15 days to come up with the additional money.

Since the shutoff, space heaters have become a way of life for Holley, 44, and keeping up with other daily necessities is increasingly difficult. Because of the icy temperatures, she no longer showers in her apartment, at 43rd Street and Cicero Avenue, and cooking is only possible using a hot plate. She spends more time away from home, bunking with her sister whenever possible. She said this winter she has little choice but to stay on the go, “moving from one warm place to another.”

About 18,000 Chicagoans are currently so far behind in payments that they’ve lost their gas service. With the most frigid weather underway, all of these families are without heat, forced to turn to expensive and sometimes dangerous alternatives. And, compared with the past few years, emergency funds used for reconnections are in short supply.

For people drowning in natural gas debt, the 22-year-old energy assistance program continues to be a lifeline. The program, funded by a federal grant and state taxes on gas consumers, helped to keep bills manageable for 122,000 households in Chicago last year.

This winter, $40 million is available to help struggling Chicago families pay down mounting bills, about the same as last year. But federal funding specifically for emergency reconnections has been slashed, leaving $5 million for Chicago–far short of what is needed, local program administrators say. As a result, they have already had to shift some of the $40 million, which has helped families keep their balances low enough to avoid cutoffs.

“This year we have a higher amount of emergency service reconnects, and we don’t have the additional funding,” said Mack Cross, chief of field operations for the Community Economic Development Association, a nonprofit that administers the program in Chicago. “Because we are a face-to-face agency, –¦ we see a lot of anxiety, a lot of despair, a lot of hopelessness.”

And sharp increases in gas prices–up more than 50 percent from two years ago–are leaving local administrators reeling. “Even though we were granted the same amount of money [as last year], it would not go as far because of the increase of natural gas prices,” Cross said. This winter, he estimates, the program will serve 25 percent fewer households than it did last year.

Castro said Peoples Energy isn’t reaping any benefits from the higher prices. When prices climb, the company must pay suppliers more, and then it simply passes the same costs on to its consumers. The company’s profits are based on how much service it provides, rather than the price of the gas itself, she said.

On a recent afternoon at the headquarters of the Illinois chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which serves as an intake site for the program, people sat patiently, utility bills in hand, waiting to apply for help. On the second floor of the South Loop building, Deborah Myles reviewed their applications in an office crowded with desks, people and a flurry of activity. Myles, who has been with the program for three years, said she has seen an increased need for service restorations in the last few months. “People have huge balances and need bigger grants,” she said.

Vennie Johnson, a 78-year-old widow who resides on the 6000 block of South LaSalle Street, was one of these clients. Johnson had been taken aback when she found out she was $8,000 in debt to Peoples Energy for heating her two-flat building. She had thought her daughter, who was living in one of the apartments, was taking care of the bill. “I don’t know when it got to be $8,000,” Johnson said. “I keep asking, –˜How does this happen?'” She was forced to take out a home equity loan to get the bill under control. Now she is struggling to pay off the loan.

Myles said she has been hearing from more and more seniors faced with trying to determine how much of their fixed incomes they can spend on heat. “A lot of seniors who have had buildings for 30 or 40 years haven’t been making payments [recently] and are in big trouble,” she said.

With a limited pool of money to distribute, program administrators have been forced to make tough decisions. Last year, in the face of greater demand, the state board responsible for overseeing the program chose to try to help the largest number of households by dividing up the funds into smaller grants. But people who received these awards were able to pay less on their balances. “This year we’re looking at a jump in the amount of disconnects because of the [board’s] decision,” Cross said.

Even grants as high as $1,200 might not help families without gas service, which will only be restored when accounts are completely settled, according to Castro.

And many families fight to pay down their gas balances only to find they have soaring electricity bills. Alberta Jones, a 66-year-old confined to a wheelchair, hasn’t had heat in her apartment at 102nd Street and Lowe Avenue since May. To keep it at a livable temperature, she has used electric space heaters that ran up her electricity bill to more than $200 in November. With a $537 monthly income, she is not sure how she’ll pay down the swelling balance.

Cross said a growing number of heating assistance applicants are battling to balance gas and electricity bills, and most would have to pay between 30 and 60 percent of their incomes to the utilities to clear their accounts. “It’s a vicious cycle,” he said. “It’s like paying the minimal balance on a credit card: You’re never going to get ahead.”

State Rep. Monique Davis, a Democrat from Chicago’s far South Side, has concluded that enough is enough. “It is so important that we realize that the bills are astronomical, and people can’t afford them,” she said.

Davis, a member of the House of Representatives’ Public Utilities Committee, pledged to introduce legislation that would cap utility charges for poor families at 6 percent of their annual incomes. It would also provide incremental debt forgiveness from utility companies. Peoples Energy would have “to tighten their belts” to make the plan work, Davis said, and consumers would have to kick in a “very minimal” fee.

Peoples Energy is “willing to support anything that works and is good,” Castro said. But “right now we haven’t been presented [anything] on how it would be funded.”

Cross believes such a policy would free up his agency to help people with long-term needs, like budgeting, that promote self-sufficiency. “As we stand, we know we can’t expect people with limited incomes to maintain their utility bills because they just don’t have it,” he said.

Holley’s balance is now down to $714. This fall, she was again awarded an assistance grant, and this time she is hoping to have her gas turned back on. Still, Holley was told the award won’t come through for another 45 to 90 days. In the meantime, others still need relief. “The utilities have gone crazy,” Holley said. “I know lots of people living with the lights out and without heat. Something has got to be done–now.”

is a staff reporter at The Chicago Reporter.