BRISTOL — During the 2015-2016 winter season, “Keep the Heat On,” the diocesan heating assistance program, has continued to offer emergency assistance to families and individuals bearing the brunt of the winter weather in homes throughout the state. As temperatures drop, donated funds provide 50-gallon heating oil shipments — or the equivalent in gas or electric bill payments — to recipients who have exhausted all other forms of public and private assistance.
One of those recipients, Robert Brown of Bristol, spoke with Rhode Island Catholic about his experience with the program during a phone interview last week. During the past two winters, Brown as contacted the diocesan Office of Community Services and Catholic Charities and received emergency heating assistance when his oil tank ran low after he was unable to pay his heating bill. He said his troubles paying the bills began with an injury sustained during a workplace accident in 2006.
“I got in a construction accident,” said Brown. “I eventually got disabled and now I’m on Social Security.”
Brown, 52, said the incident disrupted his financial and career plans, forcing him into an early semi-retirement. Despite physical therapy, he has been unable to return to work, and in recent years has dealt with a number of other medical problems, including knee surgery, abdominal surgery and a pinched nerve in his neck. Without his previous job’s health coverage, Brown said he has come to rely increasingly on Social Security, which does not take into account his mounting medical bills.
“It’s a problem, I never expected to get hurt,” he said. “I’ve got so many bills I’m trying to pay. It’s just very hard to pay my bills because I’m on a fixed income.”
Like many in New England, Brown said his budget is stretched tighter during the winter months, when the cost of oil heating adds significantly to regular expenses. This winter, he waited as long as he could before contacting “Keep the Heat On,” which arranged for an emergency 50-gallon shipment of heating oil to be delivered by the local oil company. Brown said he was grateful for the help received.
“It’s devastating what happened. I lost my health care coverage. I don’t have money to pay for my oil, that’s why I asked for help and I found out about [Keep the Heat On],” he said. “I told them, I’m very appreciative.”
Even with the extra support, families like Brown’s still face a difficult winter ahead of them. Temperature drops like the one experienced this past weekend can present major unforeseen challenges to the family budget, as well as pose problems for safety and health. Brown said he plans to continue watching his heating usage as much as possible despite the health risks of a colder home.
“I have to lower the heat and it’s cold in the house all the time,” he said. “It’s tough because I have a daughter who has asthma and she needs its warm.”
Always trying to conserve, Brown turns the heat down when he leaves the house and puts it back up when he returns. He keeps an eye on a bottle of water by his window and checks weather forecasts to see if the pipes are in danger of freezing if he shuts the heating system off for the day. One of the pipes recently cracked, he said, and the plaster in his ceiling is showing damage from the cold.
“It’s tough every year, even this year it’s tough,” he said. “I try to go for as long as I can and keep the heat as long as I can. You worry about pipes freezing, single digits. Which is sad, it’s just creating more and more problems.”
Most Rhode Island families are familiar with the challenges of keeping a home safe and heated during a New England winter, but for those with added financial difficulties, the challenge can take on a larger scale. For Brown, who said the daily stress of worrying about bills can seem overwhelming at times, every little bit of support helps to put his mind more at ease.
“I’m so appreciative of programs like ‘Keep the Heat On.’ There are good people out there,” he said.