Extreme heat in many parts of the country and across Europe has elicited concern for people forced to work outside or swelter at home.
While sympathetic to those wilting abroad – few homes in Britain have air-conditioning, we’re told – I started thinking about what’s happening here in the States.
My thoughts ran to people in America who also have no air conditioning and, if they do, may not be able to afford to run it or even service or repair their system. Such reflection comes, of course, amid higher prices for food and gas and rents that continue to rise.
We hear often about food insecurity, but there’s concern, as well, about energy insecurity. According to the global data research firm Statista, 34 million households in the U.S. had difficulty paying their energy bills in 2020. And of that number, the research firm said, 1.4 million reported that someone in their household needed medical assistance because it was too expensive to keep their home at a safe temperature.
Here in Pinellas County, Donna McGill, executive director of the Lealman and Asian Neighborhood Family Center, gets calls every day asking for help to pay electric and water bills.
“We don’t normally have funds for those things, but I’ve had a foundation that has given us $10,000 the last couple of years. In the past, that money would last six, seven months,” she said.
“I have a list of resources, but they’re all too stretched to help. We’re supposed to tell people to call 211, and 211 is telling them to call us. It really started getting this bad in May, but families have been struggling since late April.”
The growing need for assistance is also being felt at agencies such as the St. Pete Free Clinic and Daystar Life Center. They have to meet the challenge of hardships wrought by the pandemic and lately, of rising prices. Requests for help now come increasingly from those who have not had to ask before.
“Far from returning to pre-Covid levels of service at the Free Clinic, we find ourselves needing to step up even more,” Free Clinic CEO Jennifer Yeagley said in a statement this week.
For its part, Daystar is seeing more older residents seeking help, said Maria Ortiz, the agency’s client resource supervisor.
“The senior population, we’ve seen an increase in the requests for financial help and food from this time last year,” Ortiz said, adding that the need is being driven by the rise in rents.
“Because of the increases, they can’t afford to buy the basic necessities. Food stamps are only a supplement. I’ve never seen this many seniors requesting assistance.”
While overall requests for help at Daystar have increased 25 percent since last year, the number of seniors asking for help has risen 55 percent, she said.
The Free Clinic’s Yeagley summed up the crisis engulfing the lives of many local residents: “In Pinellas County, our neighbors – nearly half of whom were already having trouble making ends meet before the pandemic – have been hit hard by the soaring cost of housing; inflation impacting everyday expenses like groceries; the global instability that has contributed to skyrocketing gas prices; escalating barriers to affordable healthcare; and policy decisions rolling back rights and creating a climate of fear among those who already experience marginalization.”
Statista, in its report based on the latest survey by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, also touched on the issue of marginalization. Data showed that energy costs disproportionately impact Black and Hispanic communities. Fifty-two percent of Black people who took the survey reported experiencing energy insecurity in 2020. Among Hispanics, the percentage was 47. Whites were affected much less, with only about 23 percent reporting some form of energy insecurity.
Statista also noted that of those who reported having difficulty paying their energy bills, 5 million said they were unable to use their heating equipment, and 6 million, their air conditioning, “because it was either broken and they could not afford to fix it, or because they couldn’t afford to run it.”
As for other utilities, the Free Clinic, located at 863 Third Ave. N, is seeing a higher number of people asking for help to pay their water bills. In May, Yeagley said, the agency helped 128 through its water bill assistance program. In June, that number rose to 175.
The concerning trend also is evident at Daystar, which gets requests for help to pay gas, electric and water bills. Daystar collaborates with other agencies countywide to come up with funds to ensure that families are taken care of and that their utilities are not shut off, Ortiz said.
Food is an ever-growing need.
At the Lealman and Asian Neighborhood Family Center, at 4255 56th Ave. N, McGill spoke of a group of residents from the Mainlands community in Pinellas Park that supports the center’s food pantry. But that effort, too, has been affected by higher costs.
“Whereas they might come in with canned meats, now it’s more rice and beans,” she said. “Just like the families, it’s the same for us. When I get a donation and I shop, it doesn’t go as far. And in our neighborhood, when word gets out that we’ve got a donation, it’s gone in a day and a half, because there’s so much need.”
The Free Clinic’s We Help FRESH Pantry provides fresh produce, meats, food staples, hygiene items and diapers. A few weeks ago, on June 6, the pantry expanded its reach with the opening of two drive-through locations. One is in the historic African-American Deuces neighborhood, at 2198 15th Ave. S, and the other is in the Lealman area, at 3115 44th Ave. N.
“In the economically devastating early days of Covid in April 2020, the FRESH Pantry served over 18,000 individuals,” Yeagley said. This past April, the pantry helped 21,450 individuals. Last month, that number jumped to 28,159.
Daystar, too, continues to provide for the community’s growing need, with many county residents seeking out the agency at 1055 28th St. S – across the street from the Thomas “Jet” Jackson Recreation Center – for the first time.
This week, a mother of two teenagers traveled from Clearwater to the St. Petersburg agency to get help to pay her electric bill and to pick up food. She didn’t want to give her name, but explained during a phone interview from Daystar that she was forced to seek help when the rent for her Section 8 housing went up. Her electric bill, she said, rose from about $150 a month to $275.
“My disability and survivor’s benefits didn’t really increase, but the bills are steadily increasing,” she said. Her husband died in 2018.
Thursday, she was grateful to receive help to keep her lights on. She went home with fresh food and staples, household cleansers, detergent and hygiene products for her daughter.
There’s one thing she finds puzzling: “Right now, when there’s a pandemic, why are things increasing so people can’t afford to live and feed their families?”