Since 1965, agency has helped needy beat the heat

Doors opened at Carolina Community Actions on South Cherry Road, the last stop when the power bill is stamped "disconnect" at 8:30 Tuesday morning. A couple and another lady shuffled inside and took a seat for the 9 a.m. intake window to start processing.

By 9:15, there were eight people in the place. By the afternoon, more than 15 people had shown up. Mainly women, eyes averted, waiting their turn to swallow pride and ask for help. One lady spoke a foreign language and had a baby in a stroller. I didn't need to know her language to see that her eyes said, "I am broke."

One lady waved a bill and said, "Electric, and I can't pay it."

"May and June were so hot that we knew people's electricity bills would go up, that we'd be busy," said longtime program director Mary Gossett. "We serve people in crisis, or people who are vulnerable. We are seeing more and more who need emergency assistance."

Emergency means the power is ready to be cut off.

So these people waited to prove they were either poor, or close to poor, or dead broke. They had to prove they lived where they said they lived, that they made little enough money to qualify. They had to show that electric bill.

"The burden of proof is the applicant's responsibility," states a sign on the wall.

Shysters need not apply.

Every summer, this happens at Carolina Community Actions. It has happened since 1965. It is a place where summer doesn't mean frolic and vacation, swimming and picnics, but survival.

Tuesday, they were white and black. Single and families. Young mothers and seniors living alone.

You help them keep from sweltering, even dying, even if you don't know it.

All South Carolina counties receive federal government Health and Human Services dollars for cooling programs. Each county receives money based on population, and the amount of population around or under the poverty line.

Last year in York, Chester and Lancaster counties, 786 families kept the lights on, the elderly cool, because of these dollars you pay in federal taxes.

York County, with a population of more than 200,000, received $156,578.47 for this summer. Lancaster County, population around 75,000, received $64,755.52. Chester County, with about 30,000 people, got $64,792.35.

I asked Gossett if that means there is a higher percentage of people in poverty in Chester County, likely more people there who have those electric bills stating "disconnect," and she said, "I am afraid so, yes."

Then there are the homebound poor. Those with medically diagnosed disabilities. Carolina Community Actions doesn't handle applications by phone, but workers do take phone calls to schedule home visits to verify the needs of those who can't get out to find help to pay the bill to keep the heat from suffocating them.

Carolina Community Actions came straight out of the 1960s' War on Poverty, said Walter Kellogg, executive director for the agency. It is not an entitlement program, Kellogg said, but discretionary money to those truly in need. But that money is finite. The cooling program ends Sept. 30, or in plain Mary Gossett and Walter Kellogg talk: "When the money runs out."

The horror stories over the years where old people, the poorest, die from brutal heat?

"We try to keep that from happening," Kellogg said. "That is us, where we come in, right there."

Preisidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson couldn't stop poverty in the 1960s. Nobody has since. We are the richest country on earth with so many among us who cannot pay the light bill. Yet, in the war on poverty, so far, poverty wins in a rout.

But Carolina Community Actions, one family at a time, keeps fighting.