With the first freeze and measurable snow to hit Chicago this month, many residents are now turning up the thermostat and will soon be digging into their wallets to pay their heat bills.
The price of heat, very similar to the cost of foodhas increased over the past two years for a variety of reasons, including infrastructure delays caused by severe weather and increased global demand, analysts told the Chicago Sun Times. In Illinois, the price of natural gas has risen nearly every month since last year, according to the Illinois Consumer Commission. Nicor told the paper that heating bills for its residential customers are expected to average $971 this winter, an increase of $450.
With prices rising so steeply, many Chicago-area residents may be seeking help paying their bills. Several Chicago organizations are taking a different approach to providing assistance, from connecting people in need with helping neighbors to providing cash assistance in the form of fundraising through mutual aid, the concept of people helping others in need.
In Illinois, residents currently receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) are automatically eligible for bill assistance through Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Residents who do not receive SNAP, SSI, or TANF may be eligible for help under household size and income.
For those who don’t qualify for LIHEAP or need additional assistance, mutual aid organizations have taken community-based approaches to fill the gap. These organizations eliminate the red tape of applications and eligibility requirements and provide direct access to money and resources to anyone who needs them.
For instance, Community utility creates space for those who need to post their bills on the organization’s website. Contributors can read each story and donate to specific causes or a general fund.
“We were inspired by such a mutual aid concept in Istanbul. Our goal is to deliver help with greater urgency than LIHEAP currently can deliver,” said Anson Tong, who led the program with Karishma Chouhan. “Our hope is to foster a sense of community among Chicagoans and an awareness that if you need help, your neighbors are willing to step in and you would do the same for them.”
With no minimum eligibility requirements needed to receive donations, Tong expects a dramatic increase in people turning to the site for help this winter.
“When we launched in the summer of 2022, we saw people submitting bills and some were into thousands of dollars of utility debt,” Tong said. “I think a lot of people forget that paying for utilities is a very common problem and it’s a huge stressor for a lot of people.”
Kelsey Stone, a Chicago resident, said she used the program to help a struggling relative: “My grandmother had bills that kept going up. I wasn’t able to pay it off myself, but I turned to her mutual aid to raise the money to help pay her bills.
Únete La Villita, a housing rights organization operating on the Southwest Side, takes a multifaceted approach to mutual aid. The group, which operates in English and Spanish, offers online assistance similar to Community Utility, as well as legal advice.
“We have a hotline that people can also use to call if their landlord has cut utilities due to unpaid bills. We help them understand their rights, create letters, call the landlord or even call an assessor,” said Sara Heymann, a member of the organization. “We will also give them space heaters, bottled water and we can connect them to legal aid as well.” .
And the organizations that usually assist with food insecurity have now found themselves also becoming a resource for accessing public services. One of these programs, Beyond hungerexpanded its social services team to include a referral program for those in need of utility payment assistance.
“When bills go up, it will often be directly related to increased participation in our emergency food programs,” said Sarah Abboreno Corbin of Broader Urban Involvement & Leadership Development. “Over the past few months, we have seen a 40% increase in attendance across all of our programs.”
Providing support in the form of cash, assistance with federal applications, or heating resources like stoves and blankets are all ways Chicago’s mutual aid community is working to keep those in need warm this winter.