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Reaching more lives

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch 03/10/2008

With spring temperatures around the corner, you might think that the charitable work of Heat Up St. Louis, the non-profit consortium, takes a hiatus when the Cardinals take the diamond and sleepy crocus buds start poking up through the dirt.

But Heat Up St. Louis and its sister program, Cool Down St. Louis, provide year-around assistance to help people who are at risk when the weather gets bitterly cold or brutally hot.

Since 2001, the volunteers, non-profit agencies, local governments and corporate supporters that comprise Heat Up and Cool Down have assisted 100,000 people with $3 million in utility subsidies to consumers in 17 Missouri and Illinois counties in the St. Louis region.

As utility rates rise and economic hardship increases nationally, the public health issue of keeping people in a safe environment becomes more acute, especially for the elderly on fixed incomes, the disabled, working-poor families and single parents.

One special challenge is dispelling myths about who needs financial help to keep their homes and apartments safely heated and cooled. Some facts:

The needy often have residences and jobs. But their incomes are so low that they cannot afford to pay for food, medications and high monthly utility bills. So they make choices, and not always the best ones. Elderly people on fixed incomes face rising costs from all sides and sometimes believe they can endure excessive heat or cold. Others may try to stay warm by burning furniture or using gas generators indoors that produce deadly carbon monoxide gas.

Such potentially life-threatening decisions can be avoided through utility bill assistance and community education programs.

Heat Up St. Louis recently announced that it raised a record $600,000 in February, including $50,000 from a new partner, AmerenUE, earmarked for community education programs. The utility company also will donate 100 air conditioners to be distributed later this year.

The program's advocacy efforts include Check On Your Neighbors, in which neighborhoods are organized to regularly monitor the elderly, disabled or infirm when temperatures are extreme. Other programs educate consumers on how to lower utility bills with more efficient usage and how to avoid danger when trying to stay warm. Community organizing and education aims to reach even more people before problems can become life threatening.

Even as seasonal change beckons, utility assistance for the needy persists. Heat Up St. Louis — run entirely by volunteers with no overhead costs — urges the community to support its programs, rather than waiting for a tragedy to spark action.

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