Reporting by Jake Brown
As winter wore on throughout the traditionally-frigid Northeast, Massachusetts found itself as busy as ever processing calls for heating assistance, funneled through the frontline of connecting households with help, invaluable community action agencies like the Worcester Community Action Council’s Fuel Assistance Program, which Director of Energy Resources Mary Knittle explained was “here to help people manage their high utility bills before the winter moratorium ends and the shut off notices arrive. Tenants and homeowners, can apply, whether they heat with gas, electricity or a delivered fuel.” Processing over 15,000 applications in 2015 alone – with over 2,200 of those being new faces – the WCAC added that along with those working class households still suffering from the economic recession, 34% of their applicants were elderly and 14% were applicants – largely single-parent homes – with children under six.
Feeling the chill of winter in neighboring Pennsylvania, where news emerged out of Lancaster that in what was reported as the second-coldest February of the past Century in the area – a caution that officials used to remind readers that two brothers the previous winter had frozen to death in their home where “Manheim Township police reported the men were using a gas oven to heat part of their house and it was on when the bodies were discovered,” The Lancaster Online reported as part of their coverage of the sustained life-threatening nature of a cold front, warning that “with wind chills expected to drop as low as -20 degrees in Lancaster County this weekend, state officials are urging people to exercise extreme caution,” before adding that “renters and homeowners who are financially eligible can request crisis or regular Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program grants to help pay energy bills through April 1, 2016.”
In the Midwest, heroic examples of communities organizing around volunteer efforts to help raise always-need additional funds for heating assistance to avoid tragedies like the aforementioned were found within the 16th annual Heat Up St. Louis-organized fund-raisers being sponsored by Hardee’s Rise ‘N Shine for Heat drive, where “Hardee’s will donate its Sausage and Egg biscuit products by selling them for the special price of $1.00, and 100% from the sale will benefit Heatupstlouis.org, in the bi-state area, including areas as far away as Jefferson, Lincoln, Pike, and Warren in Missouri, and Madison and St. Clair counties in Illinois and other Missouri counties, including St. Louis County and St. Charles; and the City of St. Louis,” HeatUpStLouis.org explained.
Underscoring that “the requests to help Missouri and Illinois qualified seniors, disabled and low-income residents facing a lack of home heating, or a disconnection notice, continues to rise at a steady pace,” the organization added the urgent cautionary note that all helping hands on deck were necessary as “this is one of the worst heating seasons in a long time in terms of escalated house/home fires, and people have died or gotten physically ill trying to stay safe and warm. The St. Louis region has experienced some infant and senior deaths, often due to unsafe method of heating their homes, with the use of space heaters.”
Rev. Earl E. Nance, Jr., Chair Emeritus and Melanie DiLeo, Board Chairwoman of Heat Up St. Louis, seeking to highlight the fact that need for heating assistance had “no geographic boundaries,” reasoned that supporting local charity cooperatives between businesses and the consumer community were essential for the simple fact that “state and federal governments can’t do it all, and volunteer partnerships like HUSTL is an ever-expanding fiscal safety net for the St. Louis region. Meanwhile, another prominent board member, Mark Kern, St. Clair County Board Chairman, hailed the Hardees’ annual Rise and Shine for Heat as “a godsend in its partnership with Heat-Up St. Louis, because all of the monies collected stay right here in our community. For many families in St. Clair and the surrounding Illinois counties, it has been, so far for some of our elderly, disabled and low-income people, a financially challenging winter in term of their inabilities to pay their heating bills.”
St. Louis County Executive Steven V. Stenger echoed his colleagues’ praise for the program’s consistent effectiveness, noting that “for 16 years Hardee’s Rise ‘N Shine for Heat, a region-wide fundraiser has been that impactful financial vehicle making it possible to keep our county residents’ utilities connected,” while President and CEO, the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, Michael Patrick McMillan, speaking in praise of the program’s continued vitality, reminded the public of the vulnerable nature of charitable fundraising itself, pointing out that “often about this time during the winter, various utility funding pots in the St. Louis region are exhausted. Hardee’s Rise ‘N Shine for Heat’ fundraiser is a critical partnership with Heat-Up St Louis.”
Mayor Francis Slay sounded perhaps the loudest applause for the effort, singling out the “more than 5,550 volunteers and countless more customers have continued to help make the annual Rise ‘N Shine a major success because of their generosity. Canister collections and sales of Sausage and Egg and Egg biscuits go directly to Heat-Up St. Louis and its partners, and those funds stay in their respective local communities to help our neighbors in need.”
CBS News’ local St. Louis station quoted another active board member and local community activist, Reverend Earl E. Nance, Jr., who revealed that “LIHEAP, the federal program, qualifies certain income levels, and several other utility or government programs are used with Heat-Up St. Louis grants, as a supplemental source to re-connect service or stop a disconnection notice due to the sizes of the utility bill.” In total over the past 16 years, Heat Up St. Louis has proudly distributed 100% of their $11.5 Million in donations to the public in need, helping over 300,000 in the process.
Meanwhile, the American Public Gas Association sounded an alarming cry of caution over the President’s nearly $390 decrease in proposed LIHEAP funding for FY2017 in the budget the White House released this February, dropping from $3.39 Billion to $3 Billion, although an emergency parachute was packed into the proposal whereby “this budget also establishes a $560 million mandatory contingency fund to address increases in energy prices, extreme weather and changes in the numbers of eligible households. This contingency fund has been proposed by the administration before but has been eliminated due to congressional objections. Additionally, the administration proposes that Congress allow states to spend up to 40 percent of LIHEAP funds for weatherization without needing federal approval.”
Aware of the potential damage this kind of cut could cause hard-working middle-and-working class families around the country in communities like those represented by U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Brown closed out the month with an impassioned Op-Ed penned to The Post Newspaper of Medina where he began by quipping matter-of-factly that “dealing with the bitter cold is a winter rite of passage that Ohioans know all too well. For some it’s a nuisance; for others, the ability to brave an Ohio winter is a badge of honor. But for too many families, the cold weather isn’t just an inconvenience – it’s a safety hazard that threatens their family’s health and budget.”
Painting a vivid picture of the impact this winter’s weather has had on the lives of his constituents in closing, the Senator reminded readers that “in the winter months, Ohioans’ gas and electric bills often skyrocket, and for those already struggling to get by, this additional expense can force agonizing choices. The threat of hypothermia means turning off the heat is not an option, yet often low-income families live in older homes and rental housing without good insulation. For seniors living on a fixed income, an increase in utility bills can be devastating to their budgets. And when elderly and low-income Ohioans are forced to pay high heating costs to keep their homes warm, they can be forced to cut back on other necessities – like buying groceries or paying for medicine. No one should have to choose between heating their home and buying groceries or filling a prescription.”
Highlighting the difference LIHEAP has made in helping Ohio families like these avoid having to make such impossible choices, Brown pointed out that while “I have fought for funding for Ohio’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps hardworking low-income families cover their home energy costs,” more work is still required to make sure the maximum number of families are receiving this helping hand as “too many Ohio families don’t realize they’re eligible for help with their heating bills.” Appealing to that untapped population, the Senator – noting that “families with household incomes up to 175 percent of the federal poverty level can receive assistance from LIHEAP – that means up to $42,437 for a family of four” – sought to spread a word of encouragement across his home state that “all Ohio families need to know that while the winter might be unpleasant, it doesn’t have to break the bank, and it should never be deadly.”