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As Pennsylvania Digs Out, Need for LIHEAP Rises

Writing and reporting by Jake Brown

 

“The number of Pennsylvania households that entered this winter without utility heat or using unsafe heating sources remained near its highest level in 14 years,” the headline of an early January 2016 edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review read, highlighting the working poor as the newest demographic caught between the reality that more and more middle and lower middle class families are struggling to keep up with the annual hike in winter heating bills and the hard ceiling of $36,375 for a family of four to quality for assistance that the Tribune reports is “150 percent of federal poverty guidelines, but it was raised temporarily to 200 percent in 2008-09 during the recession. Many household incomes still have not recovered, so the LIHEAP participation limits should be raised again…(as) many people who don’t qualify are the working poor.”

 
With the record Nor’Easter that pummeled the state with snow this weekend, LIHEAP.org took the freezing temperature on the ground among the state’s nonprofits, already working overtime to help make up for the shortage in available assistance. The Tribune-Review quoted Chad Quinn, Executive Director of the Dollar Energy Fund, who confirmed among the new faces he’s seen this and recent enrollment seasons that “it makes it tougher for middle-income families, the working poor, to survive, to make ends meet.”  Pointing to the Public Utility Commission’s annual Cold Weather Survey, the cover story revealed the startling statistic that “24,175 occupied households without service or relying on unsafe sources in December,” 2015, an alarming number of vulnerable households who rely on LIHEAP as a lifeline as the state continues to get hit with record winter storms.

 

Facing plummeting temperatures throughout much of the foreseeable future, Pittsburgh’s Action News WTAE reported that “as the start of winter weather hits Pennsylvania…Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program is here to help with energy bills.”  Reporting that an estimated 400,000 families throughout the Granite state were helped last winter via LIHEAP, the state’s program director, Sandy Willis, Director, Division Of Federal Programs and Program Management, Department of Human Services, sat down with LIHEAP.org to exclusively discuss how enrollment has added up so far this winter, she began by revealing that “so far this season (as of 1/9/16), we have received over 342,000 applications.  We will continue to accept applications until at least April 1, 2016.”  With almost 75% of last winter’s application total already met, clearly, LIHEAP has been working overtime on behalf of hundreds of thousands of families across the state.

 

Mounting a united front with the state Legislature and Governor Wolf on behalf of the aforementioned constituency, the Governor’s Office issued a warning in January encouraging “those low-income families, seniors, and children” to “begin enrolling…before the cold kicks in.”  Last fall, the Governor rolled up his sleeves and participated personally in the kick-off of LIHEAP enrollment season to raise as much media coverage across the state as possible,   at the time that “this federally-funded program provides a basic human need — a warm place to live – for thousands of Pennsylvanians during the colder months. I am proud to participate in the start of the 2015-16 LIHEAP season!”

 

As a consistent champion of the program and going above and beyond to ensure the maximum number of families are protected from the risk of cold weather deaths in their own homes, Director Willis highlighted one progressive initiative undertaken by the State’s top Executive “when PA received additional federal LIHEAP funds last summer” where “Gov. Wolf’s office directed the LIHEAP program to institute a Turn-On program, which occurred before the regular start of our LIHEAP program, assisted over 9,100 households who were either facing termination of their utility service or who needed service restored.”

 

When her office has had to liaise with utility providers on behalf of customers whose accounts are facing the threat of shut-off during the winter months, Director Willis highlights her office’s “good working relationship with our utility vendors,” adding that recent improvements have been made across the state where “many have created web portals that our staff can use to verify heating responsibility and account status (such as threat of termination) that allow the processing of applications more efficiently.”  One of the state’s leading utility providers, PECO – which serves the greater Philadelphia area – was singled out by CBS Phili, who reported in early January that its customers have received over $6.8 million of the $206 million total allotted to Pennsylvania for 2016, quoting company spokesman Ben Armstrong with a reminder to eligible residents that with demand so high as temperatures fall that “LIHEAP is first-come first-served, so it’s important to get your LIHEAP application in now before money runs out.  The LIHEAP program provides grants for up to $1,000 to pay your heating bill or up to $500 to restore service or to help service from being terminated.”

 

Many of Pennsylvania’s non-profit and charity-based agencies and organizations have extended a helping hand to help make sure the maximum number of homes are helped this winter, with the Centre Daily Times this month spotlighting “an area nonprofit…trying to make the coming months a little warmer for some families in need.  Interfaith Human Services operates two programs that try to address the heating crisis that can affect Centre County residents from November to March.  The Centre County Fuel Bank is one of them.  The fund, which picks up where the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program funding leaves off, helps county residents at 150 percent of the poverty level or less keep their furnace burning.”

 

Focusing on the long-term goal of energy independence for the communities it helps, Interfaith interim Director Sylvia Neely shared that “we offer classes for clients to cut down on utility use. We’ve been doing that for three years now. Heating is one of the largest parts of everybody’s budget. It’s a huge part, too, of the crisis of affordable housing. If we could cut down on utility cost, we could help people a great deal.”  Singing the praises of community advocates like IHS, Director Willis hailed the efforts of the “many charity/community programs such as Dollar Energy and the Utilities Services Emergency Fund work closely with PA to assist households who are experiencing crisis situations and need additional assistance that LIHEAP may not be able to provide.”

 

One proven investment the state continues to prioritize at no cost to the consumer is their weatherization initiative, which includes a program representative traveling personally out to a residence to determine if energy saving improvements can be to the structure, and dispatching certified home improvement contractors to perform the physical work (including paying for all required tools, materials and man hours) in an effort to help that household achieve home safety during the winter months and eventually, reach the goal of energy independence.  Detailing this process in action, the Community Action Development Commission, who perform an “on-site Energy Audit (where)…a CADCOM approved Energy Auditor will conduct a free energy analysis and will determine what work needs to be done.  The work will then be given to a contractor, who will make repairs that may include: caulking windows, window repairs, energy efficient light bulbs pipe wrap, attic insulation, weather-stripping doors, adding door sweeps, and tuning up gas or oil heaters if needed.”  Proud to support this program, Director Willis confirms that her office “sets aside 15% of the LIHEAP Block grant for weatherization type services.  During the winter season, these funds are used for emergency repair/replacements of inoperable home heating systems.  After that, the remaining funds are used for standard weatherization of homes that also received the repair/replacement service.”

 

Continuing to make the kind of difference that causes Scranton, PA resident/recipient Amy Heskell to make sure “I have it marked every year for the LIHEAP. I do my application as soon as I get it. I try to get everything going, that way nothing is held up on my end,” she tells the local television station Channel 16 WNEP last November, adding that “it is a relief to know that that program is still available for people who need it because it’s hard, it’s very hard throughout the winter.”  Meanwhile, another resident, Brenda Strachbein of Clifton Township – reflecting an awareness among the community of how quickly funds go out the door – reported in the same story that “a lot of people were saying there was only going to be a certain amount, so I said ‘Well, we better get down there as soon as we can,’ you know, because we need it right now.”

 
While Director Willis’ outlook on the prospects of her office’s program reaching every available applicant was brightened this year with the news that “the number of applications received is a decrease of over 35,000 from last year, which we believe this is due to the improved economy, lower fuel costs and record warm winter season so far,” were budget levels to change heading into FY2017, the risk could be run that “PA would have to decide whether the eligibility guidelines would be changed (if LIHEAP funding was reduced) to ensure LIHEAP funds could service the neediest of our citizens or whether benefit levels would have to be reduced to ensure the maximum number of residents could receive assistance.”

Learn more at http://www.dhs.pa.gov/ citizens/ heatingassistanceliheap/#.Vp_ EuVJq2M0

 

Sources:

1.) http://triblive.com/business/ headlines/9715688-74/ customers-households-percent# axzz3xiSbTaC3

2.) http://patch.com/pennsylvania/ newtown-pa/significant- weekend-snow-storm-forecast-pa

3.) http://www.wtae.com/news/home- heating-assistance- availability-for-pennsylvania- residents/37412384

4.) http://www.realestaterama.com/ 2015/11/03/governor-wolf- kicks-off-the-low-income-home- energy-assistance-program- liheap-season-ID029448.html

5.) http://www.prnewswire.com/ news-releases/pa-governor- wolf-kicks-off-the-low-income- home-energy-assistance- program-liheap-season- 300170466.html

6.) http://philadelphia.cbslocal. com/2016/01/04/3-on-your-side- liheap-funds-available-to- help-with-home-heating-costs/

7.) http://www.centredaily.com/ news/local/community/ philipsburg/article45194472. html

8.) http://ep.caclv.org/pa-dced- weatherization/

9.) http://wnep.com/2015/11/02/ liheap-heating-help- unaffected-by-state-budget/

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