Life and Death in a Time of Rising Shutoffs

Trudy brings her baby home for the first time after six months in hospital. She take shifts with her husband monitoring their baby’s tiny body, making sure that that his chest rises and falls, that he is still breathing, making sure she is ready to flick his tiny heart to remind him to breathe when he doesn’t. There’s little time to breathe, herself, in between these shifts, and taking classes, and working, and taking care of three more children. There’s a little more time once she gets a nurse, but not enough to worry about the utility bill that keeps adding up, not enough to be concerned that her utility company might shut her off, until they did.

This is a story about Trudy Bowen-Griffiths, her son Joel, and Central Hudson, the sole electricity provider in Wappinger Falls, Poughkeepsie, and many other cities in its New York service territory. As public utilities become private, and as small private utility companies are acquired by larger corporations, people across the United States have seen their utility bills rising. This is about the low-income families finding their utility bills growing to require sixteen percent of their total monthly income.

They took three different sonograms before telling Trudy that she was in labor. They elevated her feet above her head, administered a steroid shot, and handed her a pill that was supposed to prevent the delivery. Nurses streamed in and out the room without telling Trudy or her husband what was happening until the doctor briskly walked in, handed him scrubs, and wheeled Trudy to the operating room.

“I was told that when they took Joel from the operating room they had to run down the hallway, bagging him, bagging him, just keeping him breathing into the bag, running to the Intensive Care Unit because it was on the 3rd or 4th floor. They were running up, trying to get him on the machine. He couldn’t breathe on his own. He wasn’t developed. His eyes were fused shut. You know how you see photos of a fetus? Joel was born like that — his belly and head big. He had to develop in the incubator.”

Joel could fit in Trudy’s hand when he was born, head-to-toe in her palm. Trudy was told that the chance of survival for a child born under 21 weeks of pregnancy was less than ten percent; she had only been pregnant for 19. His diagnoses were two and a half pages long.

He had brain aneurysms. He had a bleb, a balloon that extended off his lung, that would blow up when he inhaled. A bleb that kept on blowing, blowing, blowing up until it got too big, until it pushed all of his organs as far left as they could go. He had a hole in his heart. It was so big that they had to use adult size clamps to close it.

Hospitals didn’t want to take Joel. Westchester Medical said, “We cannot touch this child. Do you understand if we touch this child, he will die? Right now, he doesn’t have a chance of surviving.”

Surgeons didn’t want to touch him; they didn’t want the liability. It took four months for a neonatologist at Westchester Medical to agree to operate on the hole in his heart.

The hospital discharged Joel on January ninth, his brother’s birthday. He was home, but home didn’t look so different. His medical equipment filled the living room and he was attached to an oxygen machine. He still forgot how to breathe so Trudy and her husband had to learn how to administer CPR on a baby. They took shifts, watching his tiny chest rise and fall and sometimes not rise again. They would flick his heart to tell him that he was okay, that he could breathe, that he had to breathe.

Four months later they moved to Poughkeepsie.

Trudy’s husband moved out.

A nurse stepped in.

A man arrived on a day when Trudy was home from work, wearing khaki trousers and a navy blue golf shirt with the words, “People. Power. Possibilities. Central Hudson,” covering his right breast. He told them that he was there to shut her power off. Trudy told him about the letter she had sent, notifying them that her infant dependent on electrical medical equipment. The nurse told him to look, to follow the wires from the electrical outlet to the oxygen machine to the tubes that were attached to Joel’s nostrils. He was given orders, he said.

The second shut-off occurred within months. Joel was still on his oxygen machine. Central Hudson argued that they had not received the medical documentation required to prove that a shut-off that would be dangerous to a resident’s health. And her bill had reached $16,000.

Trudy got a bond against her home to pay it off.

Vassar Brothers Medical Center, the hospital Joel was born in, was also the hospital Angela Newman moved into when Central Hudson shut her power off.

She was in the middle of a nebulizer treatment when they shut her off,  that’s for her asthma. But Angela also has COPD, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a collection of lung diseases that makes it difficult to breathe. She has CHF too, that’s Congestive Heart Failure, meaning that her heart cannot pump fast enough or strong enough to maintain the blood flow required to meet her body’s needs. After open heart surgery in which she they replaced her heart’s valves with mechanical ones, she got a pacemaker, a small device to help her heart beat at a normal rate, and a remote electrical device that monitors it. None of these conditions qualified Angela for Central Hudson’s Life Support Program.

“We have received your application for the life support program. It is limited to customers or household members using medical equipment operated by electricity in the home that is essential to sustain life. The equipment must be used continuously for 24 hours a day, every day.” Angela continues to read the approved list of equipment, “tank-type respirator, suction machine, hemodialysis equipment.” Neither her nebulizer nor pacemaker monitor made the cut. “Was I supposed to be in a coma? Laying in a hospital bed?” she asks.

“Sometimes I would come home, and God knows, if I saw a truck outside, I’d think they cut me off. I would come in and the first thing I did was hit the switch to make sure I had lights.” Angela knew that she owed them, the last letter they sent announced that she owed them $6,478.88.

“The truth and reality of it is that I really didn’t feel like I owed them that much money, but the thing is, I also know that I need my electricity in order to survive.”

That’s how it works. Central Hudson sends you a letter in the pink envelope, that’s the color that tells you they are about to shut you off. And you find a way to get them that money. You call them. You consent to a Deferred Payment Agreement in which you agree to pay your regular bill, which you have not been able to, which is why you now owe them money, and an additional ten or more dollars. You go to Social Services, to Salvation Army, to the Mental Health Association, to find a grant that you haven’t used yet. You ask a friend or family member. You refinance your home. Because your life depends on it, your children’s lives depend on it.

They send out over 300,000 of these pink envelopes per year. For those who find no way to get the money, who find no plan or agreement, no grant or bond, electricity is a privilege they cannot access. There were more than 11,000 of those people in 2014. Zakiyyah Salahuddin was one of them. She slept in the car parked in the driveway  of her home because it was warmer there. Donna West and her daughter, Princess, had to plug in their nebulizers next door for 16 months before getting their electricity turned on. Jason Gantt’s wife took their one-year-old daughter to an apartment that had electricity and didn’t come back.

Trudy, Angela, Zakiyyah, Donna, Jason, and dozens more are joining Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, a grassroots organization fighting for utility justice in the Hudson Valley. By organizing and pressuring both Central Hudson and the state’s utility regulator, they seek to end shutoffs in homes where people have medical concerns or children under twelve. They want a world in which poor and working class people do not have to pay upwards of sixteen percent of their income for electricity. This is the People’s Power campaign.

In Poughkeepsie, a city whose population is 57 percent Black and Latino and 24 percent poor, Central Hudson customers have seen their rates rise after the company was acquired by the larger utility company, Fortis Inc. These rate increases have not impacted everyone equally. After speaking with over 2,000 customers, Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson found that 69 percent of those who experienced shutoffs were women and 62 percent were People of Color. Trudy and Angela’s stories resemble many other Black women’s, as they struggle to keep the lights on for their families. The People’s Power campaign is also a fight for racial and gender justice.

Recently, a Central Hudson employee contacted Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, testifying to the company’s use of racially discriminatory collections practices and failure to follow required shut-off procedures. They explained that they wrote to Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson because they were the only ones standing up to Central Hudson.

The letter gave them grounds to submit a petition for a full state investigation into the company’s illegal business practices. And in December 2015, their petition was answered. The investigation is still ongoing, and Trudy, Angela, Zakiyyah, Donna, and Jason are watching.

Caitlin Munchick is a junior at Vassar College. She is originally from Johannesburg, South Africa but has since found home in Poughkeepsie, New York where she works with the grassroots organization, Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson.