No Heat for Old Men: Elder Frozen to Death By Negligence and Greed

The combination of poverty and extreme weather is deadly for old folks. Impoverished elders living on their own are always the first to succumb in deep freezes or heat waves–sometimes speeded on their way by utility companies or local governments to whom collecting a payment or following “policy” means more than a frail human life.

Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffery wrote about one such incident yesterday. 

Bay City (Michigan) Electric Light & Power manager Robert Belleman. Upon learning that 93-year-old Marvin Schur froze to death–“a slow, painful death” according to the medical examiner–in his home, Belleman defended the utility’s decision to cut off the man’s power, without warning, during last week’s subzero cold snap. Installing “limiters” which put a cap on power usage and shuts off the juice altogether if an owner exceeds the limit, is company policy, noted Belleman, and he saw no reason to change it in the light of Schur’s death. As for the utility’s failure to inform Schur?

“I’ve said this before and some of my colleagues have said this: Neighbors need to keep an eye on neighbors,” Belleman said. “When they think there’s something wrong, they should contact the appropriate agency or city department.”

Schur, who was $1,000 behind on his utility bill, was indeed found by his neighbor–four days after the limiter was switched on, in a sub-freezing room that had icicles on the insides of its windows.

 As one reader of the Mother Jones blog commented, “Robert Belleman needs more than his electricity cut off.” But it was the Bay City government that instituted the policy to use the “limiters”–whose numbers have tripled since the recession began. Belleman’s response only highlights a larger travesty, lying in the fact that both publicly and privately owned utilities, which hold a virtual monopoly on life-sustaining energy, take so little responsibility for the well-being of the public they serve. Their negligence can become a death warrant, especially for the elderly.  As one commenter on another site wrote:

The man was 93 years of age. He was alone. He had no family. You say it was a shame he didn’t “ask” for help. If he couldn’t afford to pay his electric bill, chances are pretty high he didn’t have a phone and didn’t have a car. Even if he had a car, he was 93 years old!!! All utility companies should be mandated to have a department to police all accounts before they get cut off, especially during the heat of the summer or the colder months of winter. I’m sure there were thousands in the area, who would have paid this man’s bill and even set up an account to ensure he never had to worry about electrical service again, if only they had known about the dilemma of this poor man. I couldn’t help but see my 101 year old grandmother’s face replacing the unknown facial features of this poor man.

It’s worth reading some more of these comments–for a change, some outrage on the part of the elderly poor.

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