WASHINGTON -- The first hints of winter are upon much of the nation and, tragically, so are stories of people who died in their homes from fires that started while they tried to stay warm.
I don't know what the exact numbers are, but I do know that every winter, in any city that battles real cold, countless poor Americans have to make a cruel choice.
Do they pay the rent and buy some food, or do they pay the electric bill or buy some heating oil? Sadly, the choice for too many results in no heat and an accidental death caused by a space heater, a kerosene heater or even candles.
Without getting into the details, I know what it's like to be without heat when the temperature drops well below freezing. I also know what it's like to only have a space heater, a fireplace or a few candles for warmth in the winter.
Because I do have some experience with this subject, every year when winter sets in, I find myself scanning the newspapers and news reports for those who died or were injured while trying to stay warm.
Every year I find such stories, every year I remember how easy it is for these types of accidents to happen, and every year I wonder how we can stop it.
Day after day, we read about the "unprecedented" prosperity that is sweeping our nation, and every single day in our country, millions of hard-working Americans know that it has not come close to touching them. For poor Americans, winter brings a potential life-or-death decision.
Some who are well-off, or ignorant, or both, may ask, "Well, if these people have no money and no heat, why don't they go to a friend's house or one of those shelters?" If only life were that simple.
All too often, those who fall below the poverty line have few, if any, options when confronted with emergency situations. Many have no transportation. Many have no one to turn to. Many times the shelters are full. And many times, because of pride or embarrassment, some with no heat will do the best they can to make it through the bitter cold night. Sometimes they don't.
This winter, those of us who are more fortunate will go to sleep hearing the reassuring click of the furnace coming to life to warm our night. As we sleep in our comfortable beds, all too many adults and parents will be taking an awful risk to keep themselves and their children, if not warm, at least alive.
And somewhere at some moment in a city in the North, we will wake up to read a tragic story of someone who lost that gamble. This is not about partisanship. This is not about words. It is about human dignity, and who we are as a people.
Winter is almost here, decisions have to be made, and the rhetoric is making it colder.
Douglas MacKinnon, a former writer for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush and a novelist, is press secretary to former Sen. Bob Dole.
Financial aid is available in Baltimore City to help pay for oil, gas or electric heating bills, depending on monthly income and thenumber of members of a household.
People in need of assistance can call 410-396-5555 and they will be directed to to one of nine Neighborhood Service Centers or one of two crisis centers.
Outside Baltimore City, people may call their county energy assistance program office.