Craig Johnson settled into the couch, trying to catch his breath after walking across the room.

The small pouch strapped under his arm dumped chemicals into his body to battle the cancer that so far has been unable to kill him, but has kept him from working for nearly four years.

Donna Johnson, 53, his wife of 19 years, sat across from her 60-year-old husband in their small, dimly lit living room, her eyes fixed on the floor in front of her.

It was a warm fall day in late October, but the Johnsons already could feel the cold closing in.

“He’s been fighting. I’ve never seen such a fighter,” Donna Johnson said, looking at Craig. “The cancer hasn’t killed him yet. The cold will.”

The Johnsons had been living without heat and hot water since last month when an inspection of their hot-air furnace and water heater, both of which are oil-fired, revealed a number of safety hazards. The technician who inspected the system called Augusta firefighters after noticing the hazards. The city condemned the hot water heater, which was cracked and burned a hole in the fire box; and the technician had Craig Johnson sign a waiver indicating he understood the danger of using the oil furnace.

He used the oil furnace one night, but then thought better of it. He told the technician he was too afraid to use the furnace again.

“The guys said, ‘You’re smart,'” he recalled. “We haven’t touched it since.”

It will cost about $6,500 to replace the furnace, hot water heater and oil tank, and the couple also learned their tank has a small leak. Unable to come up with the money, the Johnsons have tried to keep the house warm with a kerosene heater — a practice they fear could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning — and they wash dishes and take sponge baths with water heated on the electric stove.

“I have to do something,” Craig Johnson said. “I have to have heat for my house.”

Pushed behind

The Johnsons recently have been able to correct their problem after going about a month without any heat, but their story is indicative of an ever-growing segment some call the working poor: families that once lived comfortably in the middle class have now been pushed behind by stagnant or dwindling incomes, coupled with the soaring cost of living, including heating expenses.

The state’s Center for Workforce and Research Information says roughly 33,000 Mainers lost their jobs between 2007 and 2009. The National Bureau of Economic Research says the Great Recession began in the U.S. in December 2007 and ended in June 2009.

The recession isn’t over, however, for many Mainers such as the Johnsons. According to a 2010 poverty report prepared by the Maine State Planning Office, more than one in 10 Mainers live below the poverty line and more than a quarter of all Mainers have an income that classifies them as poor or near-poor.

Median incomes, when adjusted for inflation, fell slightly from 2006 to 2008, despite the number of Mainers who hold multiple jobs, which eclipses the national average.

Meanwhile, prices for gasoline and home heating fuel have been volatile, but generally have risen dramatically, effectively inflicting pay cuts on workers.

The statewide average for gasoline crested $4 per gallon in 2008 and rose again to nearly $4 earlier this year, according to the web site Prices fell recently to the $3.30 range.

Home heating oil rose from an average of nearly $2.71 cents per gallon in October of 2007 to an all-time high of $3.80 in March of 2008, according to the Maine Governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security. After a decline over the next year, prices started to rise again last year and this month climbed to $3.66 per gallon.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts Northeast residents will pay an average of $3.71 per gallon this year, which is up from an average of $3.38 last year.

“These households feel the pinch of rising costs for shelter, fuel, food and medical care,” Maine State Housing officials wrote in the agency’s poverty report.

Rising energy costs have reverberated across the economic spectrum, prolonging the recession while contributing to the rising cost of nearly every commodity, including the essentials of food and housing.

“I think the recession was triggered by the rising energy costs,” said John Babb, president of Manchester-based J&S Oil. “If you look at inflation and exclude energy and housing, inflation has been kept under control very well. You put them together and it becomes a very big problem. Energy makes the world go ’round.”

Shrinking assistance

As people are forced to spend more while making less, they are turning to government programs to help fill the gap. Government programs, in turn, have less to give, because of the sluggish economy, which places an even greater strain on families.

Kelly LaChance, who manages the low-income home energy assistance program, known as LIHEAP, for the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, said recently that her agency already had taken 7,400 applications for assistance from residents in Kennebec, Lincoln, Sagadahoc and Somerset counties. That is 2,000 more than received by the same time last year.

LaChance said she expects 16,000 applicants this year, up from 14,500 last year. The increase in assistance requests comes despite federal tightening of LIHEAP eligibility standards that eliminated about 1,900 applicants in the KVCAP area who no longer qualify.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has announced that Maine will receive $23 million for LIHEAP funding during the 2011-12 heating season, which is less than half the $55.6 million it distributed last year. Of that $23 million, only about $800,000 can be used for furnace repair and $1.5 million for emergency intervention where tanks are less than one-eighth full.

KVCAP gave an average individual benefit of $805 last year. Based on a cost of $3.67 per gallon — the high mark for average prices last year — that benefit would have purchased about 220 gallons of home heating oil.

LaChance estimated that the average benefit this year will be $307. Based on projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration of $3.71 per gallon, that benefit will purchase less than 83 gallons of oil.

Making matters worse, LaChance said, is the fact that oil prices never saw their typical summer swoon. As a result, there is a noticeable uptick in the number of residents entering the heating season with empty oil tanks, she said.

“It’s going to be devastation to the community,” said LaChance, who has worked at the agency for 18 years. “This is the worst I have seen it. This state is in crisis, for sure.”

Local help

The gathering ranks of those unable to make ends meet are increasingly turning local communities and private agencies for heating assistance, said Rob Gordon, executive director of the United Way of Kennebec Valley.

Gordon heads up the Augusta Area Home Heating Assistance Group, a cadre of business, civic and government representatives who meet regularly to pool knowledge and resources to meet the heating needs of southern Kennebec County residents.

“We have more people who are in need than we’ve had in recent years,” Gordon said. “We’re really concerned about the diminished resource that will be available if the LIHEAP funds are not increased. We know already that people are experiencing difficulty.”

The home heating assistance group will again this year offer a warming center from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day in the first floor of the Masonic Building, at 44 Front St., Augusta. The center, which will be open from Jan. 2 to March 31, was opened in 2009 for the homeless and to give people a chance to turn down the heat in their homes for a few hours each day.

Even now, the group is raising money for the center.

“We’re trying to get the most mileage out of the dollars that we have,” Gordon said. “We’re interested in facilitating help in emergency situations. We don’t have a lot of money to do that.”

John Paradise, spokesman for the Maine Credit Union League, said a number of credit unions across the state are trying to bridge the gap by offering no- and low-interest fuel loans. About two-thirds of Maine’s credit unions will distribute about $6 million this year, he said.

Paradise said many of the families who seek help will come from the working class.

“It’s not the poor that are struggling,” he said. “It’s scary. I don’t know how it’s going to get fixed.”

Getting by — for now

That fear and uncertainty have gripped Craig and Donna Johnson as they huddle inside their small home without heat or hot water.

Craig Johnson has not worked since shortly after he was diagnosed with colon cancer four years ago. He collects about $1,100 a month in disability payments. Donna Johnson brings home just more than $1,800 a month from her job with the state government.

Donna Johnson’s job provides health insurance for both, but there are deductibles for care and medicine, which, coupled with a recent bout of car problems, have put the couple behind on about $1,000 in medical bills.

“To some people that’s nothing, but to us it’s like $1 million,” she said.

The Johnsons tried to get a bank loan to fix the heating systems, but they were denied because of poor credit. They then turned to their mortgage company, which also was unable to help.

“Our house payment is on time, but we have had issues with medical bills and others we’ve gotten behind on,” Donna Johnson said.

The Johnsons said they also have looked for help from government and private agencies, including Maine State Housing, which said the couple makes too much money to qualify for assistance. City officials and counselors at 211 — the statewide phone system for connecting human services to those in need — suggested the Johnsons buy an electric heater.

“We have no clue what we’re going to do,” Donna Johnson said. “We’ve called all those places. If you’re not poor, you’re screwed.”

Every string they have pulled has broken, leaving them only the hope that somehow they will find another string.

“We’ve always been survivors and managed to take care of ourselves, but everything happened at once,” Donna Johnson said. “If Craig was working and didn’t have cancer, we probably would have been able to take care of this.”

An answer to their heating problems came this past week.

After living about a month without heat and hot water, the couple finally was able to find help. They bought a new hot water heater with their own money and a second heating technician fixed the oil tank leak, enabling the furnace to operate safely.

“We had two angels come and help us,” Donna said, referring to the technicians. “We’re all set now.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

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