On her street of clapboard houses in Poughkeepsie, New York, Donna West was the lady with no lights.
“That’s how people on the block know me,” said West. “But I’m not hanging my head in shame—no, Lord.”
Broad-shouldered and with a soft expression, West and her three children have been living in the dark for months. They charge their cell phones at the laundromat. West and her daughter, Princess, who are both asthmatic, perform their nebulizer treatments at a neighbor’s home. In the early mornings, West heats water on the stove so the kids can take lukewarm baths before school. Princess even invented a song to cut through the darkness:
We have no lights
at 2 Gray Street.
When you come in our house,
you cannot see.
You will fall down the stairs,
like I did yesterday…
The problem was that Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp., the monopoly energy provider for the city of Poughkeepsie and two counties in the Mid-Hudson River Valley, claimed that West owed an outstanding balance of $12,882.26. It was a figure so shocking to West, who had been paying the utility company between $100 and $200 each month consistently over the last 16 years, that she carried around her bill in her purse. “I have to show people my bill because they don’t believe me,” she said.
West is one of the newest members of Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, a Poughkeepsie housing rights organization that has set its sights not on JP Morgan-Chase or Fannie Mae but on a local corporation saddling residents with housing-related debt: the privately owned utility company Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp.
Nationally, energy utility companies’ rates have been rising throughout the last decade, and Central Hudson is no exception. On July 1, Central Hudson imposed a dramatic rate hike: a 7 to 9 percent increase for electricity and a 5 percent increase for gas. For many across the Mid-Hudson River Valley, energy costs were unaffordable even before these increases. From mid-2013 to mid-2014, the company cut off energy from more than 10,000 households, including West’s, for lack of payment.
When most people picture debt, they think about foreclosures, student loans, and outlandish medical bills. But for an increasing number of Americans, the soaring cost of energy is also pushing families deeper into the red.
“People are going without food and medicine to try to pay their utility bills,” said Jonathan Bix, an organizer with Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson. “People are choosing between heating and eating, and a huge amount of people are still falling into debt and getting their power shut off.”
In fact, a study by the Center for Financial Services Innovation found that utility bills were the number one reason people were forced to take out short-term loans such as payday loans, causing a debt trap that Poughkeepsie resident Mary Grace Wyckhuyse, another member of Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, knows well. In 2012, she was living in Las Vegas with her children and working at a call center for—of all things—an energy company. Yet, with the call center’s commission-only pay structure, her own utility debts were mounting. Finally, she borrowed $300 from Dollar Loan Center, a storefront payday lender, to keep her lights on.
“I got the utility paid off but not the loan,” she said.
With the high interest rate, the debt ballooned and soon went into collections, leaving her to contend with a barrage of calls from collectors and a hit to her credit.
For nearly 20 years, Central Hudson has operated more or less unchallenged—until Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson came along. First emerging as an anti-eviction working group of the 2011 Occupy movement, the group spun off into its own organization and soon began supporting homeowners fighting foreclosure with guidance from the longtime housing-rights group City Life/Vida Urbana in Boston and the national umbrella group Right to the City.
In the summer of 2013, Zakiyyah Salahuddin, a longtime community organizer in Poughkeepsie and one of the group’s key members, brought another issue to the table: utility bills.
“I knew a lot of families who were hurting,” she explained.
Plus, she’d lived the problem personally. Salahuddin had been shut off at least four times by Central Hudson over the years. Once, she watched a whole refrigerator’s worth of newly bought food spoil. Another time, her heat was shut off in the dead of winter. “You see your breath in the house,” she said. “You get pneumonia. And then you’ve got a doctor’s bill, too.”
As other members shared similar experiences, the organization decided to launch a new campaign called “People’s Power.”
Nobody Leaves began canvassing neighborhoods and flyering at the Social Services office. The number of members swelled—each with their own story. One man lived in a small two-room trailer, yet his monthly bill often topped $200. Another woman moved into a new apartment in January and owed $3,000 by March. Member Tanya Barber, who lives with her 1-year-old grandson, was threatened with shut-off after she missed one payment on her payment plan. “I tried to explain to them there was a baby in the house,” she recalled. “And their response was: ‘I don’t know what to tell you. You reneged on your agreement.’”
Central Hudson declined to comment on specific cases for this piece but said, “We are sympathetic to the difficulties that many customers face due to difficult economic conditions, and we work with them to the best of our ability to keep their accounts current.”
After hosting a utilities rights clinic and a massive membership meeting, the group escalated their actions. In early March, dozens marched to Central Hudson’s headquarters to demand a meeting with the company’s CEO. A few days later, the group flooded a public hearing about the rate hikes, where member Angela Newman testified.
At 59, Newman suffers from congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and asthma, for which she requires daily breathing treatments. She explained to the audience that she had applied for Central Hudson’s Life Support Program, offered to those who require electricity for necessary medical equipment, but was denied because she needs her electronic nebulizer four or five times a day—not a constant 24 hours. Shortly afterwards, Central Hudson abruptly cut off her electricity while Newman was in the middle of her morning breathing treatment. “I breathed about two puffs, and the machine stopped,” she recalled. “Everything just went off.”
She rushed to the hospital. On arrival, she called Central Hudson before receiving care “because that’s when they wanted their money.”
When Newman recounted this story at the public hearing, she wasn’t the only one crying.
Nobody Leaves is demanding the company expand its assistance program, strengthen the protection policy to prohibit any shut-offs of homes with children 12 years old or younger during the winter months, and release data on who is being shut off. Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson is also exploring possible models of collective bargaining with Central Hudson, as well as ways to move toward the long-term vision: publicly owned, publicly run utilities companies.
The group has also pledged an internal commitment to its members: Once someone becomes a member of Nobody Leaves, she is joining a “Shut-off Free Zone”—meaning the group will ensure that all its people have power.
The “Shut-off Free Zone” pledge is reminiscent of that of the Spanish grassroots anti-foreclosure group PAH, the Plataforma de Afectados por La Hipotecas. According to organizers, PAH promises its members that once they join, they’ll never be homeless. After all, utility shut-offs are akin to foreclosures in that both act as debt enforcement mechanisms. To build serious movements to resist debt, then, groups such as PAH and Nobody Leaves must be able to offer protection against the collectors’ form of punishment—whether that’s eviction or having the lights shut off.
In Spain, the strength of this type of pledge—refreshing in its practicality and radical in its autonomy—is now on full display: The widespread PAH movement helped lay the foundation for the left-wing electoral insurgency that won the Barcelona and Madrid municipal elections in May and could also provide the political groundwork for the election of the left-leaning Podemos party in December’s national elections.
On the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, Donna West joined Mary Grace Wyckhuyse, staff organizers Spencer Resnick and Jonathan Bix, and volunteer Rosemary Lopez to help canvass West’s neighborhood.
“Sign this for me?” West asked her across-the-street neighbor, pointing to a petition of signatures opposing the summer rate hike. The woman extended her hand for the clipboard.
At West’s house, Princess was repainting the front steps a periwinkle blue.
“We’ve got to work with what we have,” West said, commenting on the bold color selection.
Sometimes, when all you have are your neighbors, that’s more than enough.
With the help of Nobody Leaves, West filed a complaint with the Public Service Commission, the state utility regulatory agency, about her outsized debt.
As a result, in early June, Central Hudson was forced to restore service to her home—the latest in a string of nearly a dozen victories in the group’s efforts to ensure that all of its members have service. As the electricity flickered on that Monday morning, Donna West went from being the lady on the block with no lights to the woman in a movement with power.
Laura Gottesdiener wrote this artice for The Debt Issue, the Fall 2015 issue of YES! Magazine. She is an award-winning investigative journalist, author, and producer. The author of A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home, she is currently a news producer at Democracy Now! Her work has appeared in Playboy, Rolling Stone, Al Jazeera,Mother Jones, and Tom Dispatch.
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