Chicago man found frozen in unheated apartment. Is it time to cut energy assistance funding?

Reading through today's headlines on the Tribune's website, one stopped me in my tracks:


Yes, frozen. Rowland Draper, 60, was found dead and frozen in his unheated North Side apartment.

He was found the day after President Barack Obama's budget came out, proposing to cut funding for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that keeps the heat on in so many poor families' homes during the winter months.

Draper's not the only one. Eleven cold-related deaths have been recorded this winter.

So, is this really a program that should be on the chopping block?

Across the United States, 8.9 million people use LIHEAP to keep their homes and apartments warm in winter. The Peoria Journal Star reports they've received more than 9,000 applications for LIHEAP in Central Illinois since September.

"We've helped several thousand people," said Anna Hepker, assistant
program coordinator for the Tri-Cities Opportunities Council, which operates the program. "We've done more applications this year than any
other year."

Obama's budget proposes cutting the program's assistance for the poor by about $2.5 billion.

Illinois served 460,146 households in 2010 with heat and energy assistance through it, according to the Campaign for Energy Assistance.

Ralph Markus, Maryland's director for the program, said the cuts would mean that about 50,000 households in his state could lose help keeping their heat on.

"A lot of homes would be cold, basically, is what would happen," Markus said.

The state of Illinois has a couple of stories from recipients of the program on its website. Here are just two:

"This program
will help me to feed and clothe my son better in the cold weather
months. Please help all the children that need this," said a southern Illinois recipient.

"Having you help me and my mother this year with
our utility bill was a godsend. It was way over my head, and I didn't
know what I was going to do until I remembered this agency. My mother is
on oxygen 24 hours-a-day, and we couldn't be without electricity, so
you see it was a matter of life and death also for me. Thank you from
the bottom of my heart for all the help you have given me," wrote a Lake County woman.

Of course, the nation's budget needs to be cut. I don't think any of us want to keep racking up record deficits and spending more than we take in. We need a balanced budget. But on who's back?

Maybe poor Rowland Draper's death is just a coincidence. But I can't help thinking it's an indication of what could happen if we decide to cut programs for the nation's most vulnerable residents.

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