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They come seeking relief from heat and hard times

It was around lunchtime Tuesday, but there was no lunch. People chewed only angst over the light bill.

Ladies and a couple of men, mainly older but a few in their middle years, mainly black but a few white. One group had ages 68, 89, 49, 51, two people 69 and two age 73. Each carried identification. And always, each had that light bill with the word "disconnect" on it somewhere.

This is Carolina Community Actions' cooling programs office. Where the elderly, the disabled, the mothers with kids under age 5, and anybody else who is broke or close to it, comes before the utility man cuts the power.

The federal Health and Human Services grant money that comes every summer for this program finally showed up last week. The office has been accepting applications since then and almost 60 people have already showed up.

Word gets around when the word "disconnect" is on the light bill.

In walked a 75-year-old lady from York named Mary Gietka. A widow, she once worked in a steel mill in Pennsylvania. Her total income every month is $913.

Gietka's utility bill said $63.17.

The disconnect date said July 17.

Tuesday was July 17.

She didn't have the $63.17.

She had to go home again Tuesday to get her proof of income and other paperwork. Because this is a federal program, the government wants documentation. No exceptions.

She had to prove she is old.

And poor.

And on the verge of sitting through the night in darkness and swelter if she didn't get $63.17.

In the back Tuesday sat Deborah Douglas, 51, recently laid off from Leiner in Fort Mill.

"I pay my church dues, my taxes," Douglas said. "But today, if I don't get help, I don't pay the electric bill. If I don't, I don't have electricity."

Out from an interview with a case worker to determine eligibility came the Rev. Joseph Moffatt Sr. Age 55, disabled from heart surgery. Income, $643 a month. From that comes rent, medications, food. And the power bill.

He was at Carolina Community Actions before the doors opened Tuesday. Moffatt needed a $149 voucher or begin to borrow candles.

Carolina Community Actions issues no cash or checks. Just vouchers for the utility company for emergency cases. Or a check sent to the utility company directly for elderly or disabled people looking ahead at the disconnect.

"I have my house insurance coming up this month. It comes this time every year, and with it being so hot, my light bill is high," said one lady, 69 years old. "I can't wait until it is turned off."

One lady said she lived at Heritage USA. That's the old Jim Bakker property in Fort Mill, where the disgraced televangelist asked the world for its light bill money so he could live high on the hog. It hasn't been called Heritage USA for years, although many believers moved there and still live there.

Live up there, the light company up there still wants the bill paid.

In the second row sat Hettie Stewart. Proud and 89 years old. Widowed, she worked all her life cleaning other people's houses. The kind of work that was off the books. Cash money. But when you get old, off-the-books money doesn't come back the first of the month in a check from Social Security. Stewart has her husband's Social Security, but "it isn't much."

She will not wait for the grim reaper of disconnect to come to her house. She came to ask for help.

Stewart said she knows she must pay her utility bill, like she has paid her bills all her life.

"I have to pay for what I use," is what proud Hettie Stewart told me.

Carolina Community Actions dates to the old Great Society days of Lyndon Johnson. It is certainly a liberal program: It gives to the poor. I dare any of the candidates who want to be president of the United States -- from either party, and some will come through Rock Hill in the next few months before the state primary -- to come into this place on a hot Tuesday and tell Hettie Stewart, who cleaned other people's houses all her life, that she is a burden on society.

Mary Gossett, who has worked at Carolina Community Actions for 29 years, said the best way to describe what the cooling program does is "give the vulnerable some stability during times of severe heat."

This week around 90 degrees, with "disconnect" part of the conversation, every day sure was severe to these people.

Over the years, Gossett and others have heard some complaints, like any agency does that must verify income. Make too much money, you aren't eligible.

The summer cooling program runs through the end of September -- or until the money runs out. Until then, the old and disabled and more will walk into the office in the back of a building on Cherry Road. They will sit on the metal chairs.

And they will hope they are poor enough to get help to keep the lights on.

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