- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2007

City officials and local utility companies are trying to identify and help hundreds of D.C. residents who don’t have heat or electricity.

Merrit Drucker, director of the city’s Office of Neighborhood Services and Community Affairs, said yesterday that he plans to draft a letter that utility companies have agreed to send to properties where service has lapsed.

“The object is to get information about city services to persons who may not have heard about them,” Mr. Drucker said.

The outreach comes in the wake of a Jan. 17 fire that killed Bessie D. Sanders, 65, in her two-story row house in the 900 block of Delafield Place Northwest. City officials said Mrs. Sanders’ utilities had been shut off, and they said an unattended candle caused the fire.

Private funeral services for Mrs. Sanders were scheduled for yesterday.

Ideally, city officials would be able to knock on the doors of those people who need help paying their utility bills and inform them about existing assistance programs, but privacy laws prevent officials from asking utility companies for a list of properties without heat or electricity.

Mr. Drucker said the utility companies know what addresses are without service, but many of those properties are uninhabited. He said the city keeps a list of vacant properties, so officials plan to forward that list to the utility companies as a way to identify which properties may have residents who need help.

Mr. Drucker said that Washington Gas officials have agreed to send out the letter notifying residents of available city services and that the utility company plans to follow up the effort with personal visits in some cases. He also said that city workers will go door to door in communities where they suspect there are concentrations of residents living without heat or power.

Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, said that in response to his requests, Potomac Electric Power Co. officials told him that 244 properties are without electricity, and Washington Gas officials said that between 700 and 800 properties don’t have gas service.

“At least we are now getting a handle on the extent of the problem,” Mr. Lynch said.

Mr. Drucker said he has noticed that residents who let their utilities lapse often live in row houses and that the problem occurs less among residents living in detached single-family homes. He also said that the city has the authority to compel commercial property owners to turn on utilities.

Mr. Drucker said that residents without heat or power are often older people, living alone, who encounter financial or health problems.

“That’s the key data set,” Mr. Drucker said. “If we can locate them and help them, that will be the gold standard for this.”

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