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Turning On The Heat

A Hartford woman tells U.S. Senators about her high energy bills

By JESSE A. HAMILTON, Washington Bureau Chief

March 06, 2008

WASHINGTON - One minute, she's just trying to get by. The next, she's telling a U.S. Senate committee about trying to get by.

Hartford's Robin Hussain took time off from raising her three grandchildren Wednesday to tell the Senate Subcommittee on Children and Families some things she figured it should know. Namely, the home-heating assistance that members talk about from a 30,000-foot perspective in Washington is about the only thing standing between her family and disaster.

So she became the day's regular-person witness, putting the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program into perspective. She received $675 from the program this season. Before that, she said, "I wondered if I would have to give up our apartment and move in with family or friends. But a grandmother with two preschool children? How long could we stay on someone's couch?

"The most recent chapter in my story is sitting behind me today in the hearing room. This past year I was asked to take in one more granddaughter, who has been through some really traumatic experiences."

Hussain, 45, and that granddaughter, 7-year-old Desaray, had come to D.C. the night before, and they weren't about to miss their chance to see a bit of the capital. They wandered around the west end of the National Mall in a warm rain, checking out the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall and other highlights. And first thing Wednesday, they toured the other end of the Mall the Capitol with a staff member from Sen. Chris Dodd's office.

Dodd chairs this subcommittee, and he had asked local anti-poverty agency Community Renewal Team Inc. to find somebody who could tell senators about the energy assistance program. CRT President Lena Rodriquez thought of Hussain, who lives in the group's "Grandfamilies Project" for grandparents raising their children's children.

Hussain sat between a row of experts, people with serious credentials and experience in the effects of insufficient home heating on children. They could tell about the effects of the program over its 27 years, about the connection between comfortably heated homes and children's development, about skyrocketing fuel costs jeopardizing the whole thing.

Dr. Deborah Frank, director of Boston Medical Center's Grow Clinic for Children, said, "LIHEAP is a child survival program." When babies don't get heat, "they don't learn, and they don't grow."

But it was Hussain who could tell about wearing layers in the house, hoods pulled tightly over heads, triple blankets on the beds. You can find savings at the grocery store, buy used clothing, get a place with lower rent, she said, but there's nothing you can do about heating costs.

"I'm a really good manager," said Hussain, noting that she has held management jobs at a number of businesses. "There are no coupons to clip."

When she finished telling her story, Hussain said, "Thank you very much for listening."

Dodd replied: "We can probably end the hearing right now." There's no statistic to match reality, he suggested.

Last winter, the energy assistance program helped almost 98,000 families in the state. The cost of heating a home has more than doubled in Desaray's life. But not everybody is aware of the program.

Hussain advised the senators that they should consider advertising it more, maybe even getting utility companies to mention it on their bills. "Getting the information to people can possibly save people's lives."

Then it was over. "Congratulations on being a great grandmother," Dodd told Hussain in the wood-paneled hearing room. "I've got a lot of confidence you're going to do fine."

After the hearing, the experts crowded around Hussain and shook her hand. She had been a little nervous, she admitted, though she said she's "not too shy. Yeah, I got a big mouth."

Desaray, firmly in the lead with her pink backpack and braids, marched through the Senate building's hallway on her way back into the city, Hussain trailing behind. There were several more hours before the flight home. Time to take in the first hints of a Washington spring.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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