An ‘invisible’ crisis: Already behind on utility bills, many Americans face a tough winter

USA TODAY | TREVOR HUGHES AND BAILEY SCHULZ

The temperature is dipping toward freezing Tuesday night and Toni Stark is getting worried about her rickety basement furnace holding out for another winter.

Her plumber told her it will probably make it through, but at 99 years old, Stark isn’t taking anything for granted – whether that’s being able to keep the furnace running or remaining in her home as the electric and heating bills begin to mount with the cold.

“I keep thinking about what to do if I have to replace it,” she says from the living room of her one-story brick home about an hour northwest of Denver. “I’m comfortable in this house. I wouldn’t want to leave.”

For several years, Stark has been receiving a small payment from the federal government that helps her cover her utility bills.

The money isn’t much, but the annual assistance under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program gives her a little breathing room as she juggles paying unexpected dental expenses and higher food costs with her Social Security and small savings account.

“It means I can manage my other money a little better, helps me with my groceries,” she says. “I probably sit in the dark more than I should. It’s been a real help. I appreciate it picks up the slack.”

"Summer is usually the time when people can get a break, get a breather, but they didn't get that this summer," said Denise Stepto, a spokeswoman for Energy Outreach Colorado, which last year provided utility assistance for more than 23,000 households.