ST. PAUL, Minn., May 6, 2008— -- Julie Tkachuck walks around her home at night holding a candle because she is literally living in the dark. Even though she holds a steady job as a steelworker, she can no longer afford to pay for electricity.
Tkachuck, a single mother of three, now has to find the time to wash laundry by hand and must take her 5-year-old daughter to a neighbor's house to bathe.
It has been more than a week since utility workers shut off the lights in her home. After paying for more expensive gas and groceries, Julie had no money for the heating bills left over from winter.
If you need help paying your home energy bill, contact the national energy assistance hotline at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 866-674-6327, and it will refer you to your local energy assistance agency.
"There's something wrong with this picture," Tkachuck said. "I work hard. I come home, I take care of my kid. Why am I in this situation?"
Nearby in Minneapolis, the Williams family is another portrait of struggle. Antonio Williams said that because business at his moving company was down 35 percent this year, there just wasn't enough money for the power bill.
As a result his sons sleep in the living room because it's warmer than their bedroom, and they do their homework in the car for light.
If you would like to make a donation to help people who do not have power, please call your local fuel fund, a list of fuel funds is on the National Fuel Fund Network Web site.
"I've never failed my kids where we don't have electricity. Never," Antonio Williams' wife, Dana, said.
She said the hardest part is not being able to cook or keep milk at home for the boys.
"They never asked to be here," she said. "They never deserved not to have electricity. There are certain things in life your momma can guarantee you, like shoes, clothes and electricity."
In Minnesota alone, 450 people a day have their electricity shut off.
Local aid worker Catherine Fair said she has been working furiously to try to help these people find assistance.
"We're seeing an unprecedented number of shutoffs and disconnections," she said. "The utility companies are not working with them like they have in the past to help them work out payment plans."
The problem is emerging now because many cold weather states such as Minnesota have laws that prevent utility companies from disconnecting delinquent customers in the winter. Now that spring is here the restrictions have ended, and the companies are demanding payment.
Utility officials said they have to be aggressive, because unpaid balances drive up rates for paying customers. They said they have never seen delinquencies this high, and they blame it on skyrocketing energy costs.
While there is federal assistance for people who can't afford their utility bills, the number of applicants for the aid has hit the highest point in 16 years. Consumer advocates fear a record number of families across the country will soon have their power shut off.
"Last year and the years before mostly we saw low income people on welfare. This year we're starting to see working families, people who hold regular jobs," said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association. "Energy is becoming unaffordable to millions of low income families, and we don't have a good solution in place to help them."