With the first freeze and measurable snow hitting Chicago this month, many residents are now cranking up the thermostat — and will soon be digging into their wallets to pay those heat bills.
The price of heat, much like the cost of food, has spiked 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 gone up nearly every month compared to last year, according to the Illinois Consumer Commission. Nicor told the newspaper that heating bills for its residential customers are expected to reach an average of $971 this winter — a $450 increase.
With such a sharp rise in prices, many Chicago area residents may be looking for 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 via mutual aid, the concept of people helping others in need.
In Illinois, residents who currently receive benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs are automatically eligible to receive utility bill assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Residents who don’t receive SNAP, SSI or TANF may be entitled to help based on 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 cash and resources for anyone in need.
For example, Community Utility creates space for those in need to post their bills on the organization’s website. Contributors can read each story and give donations to specific causes or to a general fund.
“We were inspired by a similar mutual-aid concept in Istanbul. Our goal is to give help more urgently than LIHEAP can currently provide,” said Anson Tong, who spearheaded the program with Karishma Chouhan. “Our hope is to promote a sense of community among Chicagoans and the knowledge that if you need help, your neighbors are willing to step in and you would do the same for them.”
With no minimal eligibility qualifications needed to receive donations, Tong anticipates a drastic increase of people turning to the site for help this winter.
“When we launched in the summer of 2022, we saw people post bills and some were in thousands of dollars of utility debt,” Tong said. “I think a lot of people forget utility payment is a very common issue and it’s such a huge stressor for a lot of people.”
Chicago resident Kelsey Stone said he used the program to help a struggling relative: “My grandmother had some utility bills that mounted. I wasn’t in a position to pay it off for her myself, but I turned to 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 multi-faceted approach to mutual aid. The group, which operates in English and Spanish, offers online help similar to Community Utility, as well as legal advice.
“We have a hotline people can also use to call if their landlord has cut their utilities due to unpaid bills. We help them figure out their rights, craft letters, call the landlord, or even call an alderman,” said Sara Heymann, a member of the organization. “We’ll also get them space heaters, bottled water, and can connect them with legal aid as well.”
And organizations that usually assist with food insecurity have now found themselves becoming a resource for utility access as well. One such program, Beyond Hunger,has expanded their social service team to include a referral program for those needing utility payment assistance.
“When utility bills increase it often will directly relate to an increase in attendance for our emergency food programs,” said Sarah Abboreno Corbin at Broader Urban Involvement & Leadership Development. “We’ve been seeing a 40% increase in participation across all of our programs over the past few months.”
Providing support in the form of cash, federal application assistance, or for warming resources such as heaters and blankets are all ways in which the mutual aid community in Chicago is working to keep those in need warm this winter.