How bad will the fuel crisis get?

It could be a "frozen Katrina." The upcoming winter has all the hallmarks of a major crisis, according to social service providers who attended a Boston Foundation forum Monday on helping Boston residents survive the coming season of housing woes and higher fuel and food costs.

Although it’s too early to tell what the weather will bring, many of the providers from agencies like Rosie’s Place to Cradles to Crayons said they’ve been besieged by more low- and middle-income individuals and families in distress than in previous years, with requests for assistance easily outstripping last winter’s inquiries.

Forty percent of Massachusetts homes are heated by oil. One of the panelists, former congressman Joseph Kennedy II, president of Citizens Energy, said his organization is expecting same demand for heating assistance as last year. Bill White, the assistant secretary for federal affairs in the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said this winter could see low-income families receive 10 weeks of heating fuel assistance compared to seven last year. Since oil is not a regulated industry, White added that he’d like to see heating oil dealers commit to a consumer bill of rights. Under such a plan, dealers could furnish partial tanks of oil to families experiencing financial difficulties.

Deborah Jackson, CEO of the American Red Cross of Massachusetts Bay, also worried that her organization would be faced with housing more families who lose homes due to fires caused by the misuse of ovens and propane heaters as alternative heating sources. Carol Tienken, chief operating officer of the Greater Boston Food Bank, reminded the audience that many agencies relied heavily on volunteers and wondered out loud where this army of people would come from.

Attorney General Martha Coakley chimed in from the audience, saying her office working on the crisis on two fronts: helping people who fallen behind in their utility payments and encouraging others to weatherize their homes.

The forum concluded with some frank talk from Paul Grogan, the Foundation’s president. Prior to announcing grant awards for Citizens Energy, the city of Boston, the Red Cross and others, Grogan admitted to being “a little overwhelmed” by what he learned about the fuel crisis, homelessness, and hunger. “We need to redefine what it means to be an American,” he said.

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Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

Although trillions of dollars had been vaporized in the Wall Street meltdown, Grogan said, there are still tremendous resources available to forestall suffering and misery this winter. He pointed to Iraq War expenditures of $10 billion per month and the $700 billion to bailout banks “within days” as examples of Washington being able to generate funds when certain situations warranted them. 

“We tell ourselves we don’t have money for the less fortunate,” or to fund programs like pre-school education, Grogan said. “We can’t afford it, we can’t do it. That’s bullshit.”