WEST ENGLEWOOD — A women's shelter that houses 19 women and 23 children is without heat this cold October week after Peoples Gas disconnected service because of an overdue bill.
Service was disconnected on Oct. 16, and Kirk's second shelter, Clara's House, also is facing disconnection. Clara's House is home to 38 women and owes Peoples Gas about $11,000.
"I don't know what I am going to do at this point," Kirk said. "These women depend on me to provide a home for them, and I have let them down. If the gas service at Clara's House is disconnected, then I might have to ask the ladies to temporarily move out."
In the meantime, Kirk said she is seeking help to buy portable heaters for everyone as temperatures this week dip into the 20s. A spokeswoman for Peoples Gas said it delayed disconnection for a while, but was forced to do something as the bill grew.
"Peoples Gas has been working with Clara's Place since April regarding four accounts," said Peoples Gas spokeswoman Jennifer Block. "Unfortunately, one of the accounts had to be disconnected due to the extreme arrearage and lack of available funding. We will continue to work with Clara's Place to find an amicable payment arrangement for the accounts over the long term, and we will restore natural gas service once this is in place."
Clara's House is a transitional shelter where women stay up to 120 days, and Clara’s Place is a 13-unit apartment building for long-term occupants. The shelters service nearly 300 women a year, Kirk said.
"I feel bad when I leave here at night because I get to go home where I have heat and hot water, while these children are left here," said Kirk, a 72-year-old grandmother who has lived in Englewood for 39 years. "I have babies here as young as 4 months old living with no heat, and that breaks my heart."
Block said cutting off service to anyone — especially a shelter — "is not something we take lightly."
A law prohibits utility companies, such as Peoples Gas and ComEd, from turning off sources of heat from Dec. 1 to March 31.
Kirk said it takes about $275,000 a year to run Clara’s House, which is fully occupied, and $375,000 for Clara’s Place, which has 37 occupants, even though it can accommodate 59 people. Kirk said she did not have enough money to feed 59 people, which is why Clara’s Place is not full.
She added that without any regular funding, both shelters have been running "on a prayer" for years.
This is not the first time Kirk struggled financially to keep the shelters open. Earlier this year, she owed the City of Chicago $41,469 in building code fines, but the city ended up settling for $1,000.
The organization does not receive any grant funding in part because it does not have any grant writers on staff, but that will soon change, according to Rosilind Sculfield, one of six board members for the West Englewood United Organization.
"I plan to take a grant-writing course so I can start applying for grants," said Sculfield, whose husband Tony Sculfield, a radio personality on WGCI-FM, is also a board member. "Until then, we are going to take things one day at a time."
Ald. Toni Foulkes (15th), whose ward includes the shelters, said she would do what she could to help Kirk.
"When she calls, our office does everything it can to help her," Foulkes said. "I have not spoken to Clara yet about this matter, but I plan to soon."
Residents of the shelter said they're going to have to deal with the cold, because relocating is not an option for most of them.
Kathy, who only shared her first name, has been living at Clara's Place for a year as a result of abuse she said she suffered from her husband of 20 years.
"I left him in 1998, and I have been running ever since. I am afraid if he finds out where I am staying he will come here and try to kill me," she said. "I have nowhere else to go, so I have no choice but to stick it out here. I put on a lot of clothes at night to stay warm, and I go to other places to wash up."
Kathy said she uses restaurant bathrooms and public libraries to wash up and was not worried about the weather for now.
"But once December gets here, it may be rough because that's when it gets down to zero," she said. "If that happens, then we might have to evacuate the building."
Darlene Morman, 53, ended up at the shelter after she lost her Housing Choice Voucher after pleading guilty in 2010 to aggravated battery, a felony.
"My boyfriend was very abusive, and I got tired of him beating me up. One night he started hitting me, and I defended myself by stabbing him with a knife," said Morman, whose 8-year-old niece lives with her. "If this place closes, I don't know where I will go. I don't have a backup plan."
For Trina Nalls, a 50-year-old home health care employee, this is her third time at the shelter.
She first came in 2001 when she checked herself into a drug rehab clinic. After getting off drugs, Nalls ended up at the shelter again in 2008 for a two-year stint. And a year later she returned with her 20-year-old son and her 18-year-old daughter, who has a 2-year-old son and is seven months pregnant.
"I want Peoples Gas to know that we need heat and hot water to survive," said the South Shore native. "We ain't got nowhere to go."