People
1:49 am
Fri July 6, 2012

Relentless Heat, Hard Choices: Family Struggles As Utility Bills Rise

The living room of Cheryl Landes' small apartment has the cozy feel of your grandmother’s living room.

No surprise.  She’s often watching four grandkids, as well as her own 13-year-old son.

This afternoon, two of them are playing with their hand-held electronic games. They can play alone, or together. They laugh as their small computers make music.

Cheryl’s 90-year-old mother, Billie,  lives here too. She quietly sinks into a club chair. She has chronic lung disease, and dementia.

Both Cheryl and her grandson have asthma.

Soaring Utility Bills

When it's hot and humid, they run their air conditioner all the time. They have to.

Her utility bills are $200 a month, more than double what they are without the AC.

Landes says after you've paid your bills, your money has often run out early in the month.

"When you have your money and you're on a fixed income, it's all gone," she says.

And that's assuming there are not unexpected costs, Landes explains.

For example, she paid an unanticipated $120 when her insurance company charged her administrative costs at the time she was changing companies to lower her premiums. Her premiums did ultimately go down.

Cheryl Landes doesn't have health insurance.  She worries about a health emergency and fluctuations in the cost of necessities like gas, and groceries.

"Every month you don’t know. You go to the grocery store and you don’t know what (anything's) gonna cost. It's constantly changing."

And so Cheryl substitutes cheap food for healthy food.

She canceled her internet and shares a cell phone with her sister.

She says once in a while, there’s a treat.

"The kids get up early, early on a Saturday or Sunday morning.  They like to go to McDonald's with their 99 cents."

It's like robbing Peter to pay Paul all the time. She says it's frustrating.

Emotionally Draining

A photograph of Cheryl's husband sits on the mantle. In the frame is wedged a small card with a well-known Catholic prayer on the back.

Landes says she's learned how to manage the household in the years since her husband was killed on the job.  He fell off a building on a construction site.

Even though she knows she's doing everything she can, these continual days of summer heat worry her.

"Who is gonna have to wait to get paid?  It's really hard. It's the everyday things that get you. "

The air conditioner cranks on and cool air streams through the vent.

It's 80 degrees, Landes laughs. 

"We keep it to 79, so when it comes on, we know it's 80 degrees."

She 's trying not to feel guilty about running the air conditioner, even though it means cutting elsewhere in the budget. 

She knows they need it, and that they're lucky to have it.