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Keeping the Keystone State Warm

Writing & Reporting by Jake Brown

 

Pennsylvania is warmly regarded by many as the Keystone State, an election-time Swing State, home of the Penn State Nittany Lions, but in winter, is considered one of the coldest in the Northeastern region, making LIHEAP a central log on the fire in keeping the state’s most vulnerable elderly, disabled, single-parent and working poor households WARM.  Conveniently, the start of December marked the kick-off of Winter Weather Awareness Week throughout the state, with Weather.gov offering a glimpse inside why with their report that “one of the key lessons from natural disasters over the last several years is that individuals must be prepared to deal with the effects of hazardous weather conditions…Heavy snow can pile up several feet, delighting skiers, but clogging roads or trapping us in our homes. Freezing rain can rob us of electricity or turn our highways into deadly thoroughfares.  Biting cold and strong winds can make the spot by the fireplace seem cozy, but they also numb our fingers and toes, or even worse. These are all facts of life in our temperate climate during the winter.”

 

In order to make sure the fewest home as possible are without heat during this kind of life-and-health-threatening winter season, $185 million was put to work this fall around the state, with the bonus of a $30 million increase over the 2015 winter season, reflecting an increase in funding while Nicole Silks, acting Director for the PA LIHEAP program under the Dept. of Human Services, revealed that “although some areas of Pennsylvania experienced large snow fall last year, the temperature overall was unseasonably warm. With the warmer temperatures we experienced a decrease in applications submitted last year. The cost of heating has remained relatively steady over the past two years.”

 

Because those costs have stayed high, LIHEAP – in Dir. Silks estimation – has remained “a crucial and a life-saving program.  It not only provides an initial heating assistance grant of $200-$1000, which allows recipients to allocate money within their budget for other needs, but eligible LIHEAP households can also receive Crisis grants up to $500.  Crisis grants help those that are without heat or in danger of being without heat maintain or restore heat.  LIHEAP crisis also provides assistance in getting broken or malfunctioning heating systems repaired or replaced.”  An important helping hand in that effort toward making the homes these vulnerable families live in are as sheltered from the kind of cold getting in that causes such sharp spikes in winter heating costs, the Director spotlights Pennsylvania’s Weatherization program as “an essential piece of Pennsylvania’s LIHEAP program. Weatherization’s goal to reduce energy costs by increasing the energy efficiency of homes is necessary to reduce the impact of heating costs on low-income families. As heating prices rise it is imperative that Pennsylvania is able to use the allocated LIHEAP funds to benefit the most citizens. Energy efficient homes are able to make the most of the LIHEAP funds distributed to them. Each year Weatherization assists homes in becoming more energy efficient, potentially allowing more households to be assisted.”

 

Not just coming out to do the work for the families living in the houses they weatherize, but involving those household members in a hands-on, educational process to understand how to maintain the upgrades being made to their homes, with the Pittsburgh-based Tribune Review reporting in December on a University of Pittsburgh-sponsored class, the “Warming Millvale: An Energy Saving Workshop,” where College students even got involved with their community, specifically Environmental Studies and Economics major Cecilia Oliveros, who taught the course with Millvale sustainability coordinator Zaheen Hussain.  Highlighting many of the most valuable tips passed along during the session with local households utilizing energy assistance this winter, the Tribune-Review shared that “water heating is the second largest home expense after heating and cooling, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Oliveros suggested lowering a water heater’s temperature from the standard 140 degrees to 120 degrees, adding that using polyethylene pipe insulation could raise water temperatures two degrees. Insulating hot water tanks and installing low-flow water fixtures may improve efficiency and reduce spending.  Next, Oliveros recommended installing door sweeps — guards fitted to door bottoms designed to prevent cold air from entering the home.  Foam gaskets placed between outlets and wall switch plates prevent draft circulation.  Oliveros instructed attendees to use caulk cord and PVC self-adhesive foam tape to seal potential air leakage around window and door frames, plumbing and ceiling fixtures and electrical outlets. Window insulator kits seal plastic wrap around windows, trapping cold air outside.”

 

The spirit of giving this season has stayed vibrant throughout the state, with creative charity campaigns like the One Gallon Challenge in Lock Haven, PA, where the community rallies each November to raise $4 – the average cost of a gallon of heating oil – per person to donate to households in need of heating assistance, with local paper The Express reporting of the 9th annual drive that “the local ministerium, which is the Southern Clinton County Association of Christian Churches (SCCACC) is again asking churches, businesses, organizations, and residents throughout the area to give the $4 sum to the One Gallon Challenge heating assistance fund.”  Raising $140,457 over the past decade, shows of support like this around the state were alive and well, as the Dollar Energy Fund announced its annual grant intake season in Allegheny County where over $800,000 had already been disbursed to 2,400 families in need this winter, and West Penn Power – one of the leading area utilities involved in the drive alongside Duquesne Light, Columbia Gas and Peoples – reported through their official spokesperson, Ashlee L. Yingling, that “between LIHEAP and Dollar Energy Fund, Duquesne Light customers received about 30,000 grants last winter totaling nearly $5 million to help them pay their utility bills.”

 

Speaking to the cooperative effort between the state’s LIHEAP advocates and the utilities to avoid as many shut-offs during winter as possible, Director Silks confirmed that “the LIHEAP program and the utility companies do have a good working relationship, some have representatives who are members of the LIHEAP Advisory Committee and there is open communication between utilities and LIHEAP throughout the year,” adding that as a failsafe, “the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission does impose a moratorium to prevent shut-offs during the peak heating months for households within 250% FPIG.”  PA Public Utility Commission spokesperson Denise McCracken noted in November of the utilities’ collective investment in helping vulnerable customers avoid these kinds of life-threatening shut-offs that “Pennsylvania utilities spent nearly $459 million on various consumer assistance programs just last year, and that’s not counting programs like the federal LIHEAP program, which is the Low Income Heating Assistance Program.”

 

Finding a strong show of support from the Statehouse as well, Governor Wolf – who Director Silks confirms along with “his staff, and the legislature are very supportive in promoting the LIHEAP program – spoke out personally this fall on the importance of “making sure all Pennsylvanians are safe and healthy is my top priority.  It is essential that we ensure that every Pennsylvanian has a warm home and I encourage anyone who needs this assistance to apply through COMPASS or at their local county assistance offices.”  Those offices, run by the dedicated and tirelessly committed staff of the state’s countless Community Action Agencies on the front lines of this ongoing war against allowing families to be left out in the cold, earned the Director’s deep admiration and praise as she underscored that these “CAAs are a vital part to the community outreach and promotion of the LIHEAP program. These agencies have the advantage of being connected to the citizens who are most in need of assistance. Our program makes brochures and applications available to these organizations, at their request, to aid in their outreach efforts.”

 

Proving an invaluable asset year in and out throughout the state in both its urban centers and rural counties, like the York County Community Action Corp who – reflective of the Farmland backdrop and variety of heating sources unique to those parts of the state – offers assistance with a wide array of heating sources ranging from “natural gas, propane, kerosene, wood or wood pellets, No. 2 heating oil, and electricity.”  Director Silks, in elaborating on the critical role LIHEAP plays in the lives of these farming families, confirms that indeed “rural communities are often times dependent on deliverable fuels for their heating needs. Deliverable fuels tend to be more costly, and are associated with larger up-front costs, as well as having the added burden of minimum delivery amounts.  LIHEAP is beneficial to the rural communities in the state not only by assisting with the general energy burden of households, as it does in more urban parts of the state, but also  by allowing households to afford minimum delivery and assist with the large upfront costs associated to obtaining a fuel delivery. Homes served by regulated utilities have the added security of a moratorium to prevent shut-offs during the peak heating months, for households within 250% of the FPIG; this is something most rural communities do not benefit from due to the dependency on deliverable fuels. These households may end up without heat if they cannot afford fuel within the heating season, and that is where the LIHEAP crisis grant becomes so important to these areas.”

 

With just under 2 million Senior Citizens gracing Pennsylvania according to the State’s Department of Aging, that very dept teamed this year with the Director Silks – who noted that because “many elderly households are on a fixed income, the increased cost of heating adds a strain to their already tight budgets, and the LIHEAP program helps to ease their heating burden and allows them to budget for other needs” – and her colleagues at the Dept. of Human Services to create the specifically-tailored PA Link to Community Care.  Designed for the express purpose of making sure that every eligible Senior was aware not only of the presence of a wide range of programs including LIHEAP, but equally that they had specific steps on how to apply, PA Secretary of Aging Teresa Osborne spoke on the vital importance of spreading the word as aggressively as possible ahead of the winter season, explaining that “while our call center presently responds to individual questions about aging and disability services, the PA Link to Community Care website will extend our availability beyond typical office hours and will better support individuals who prefer to do their own research on available long-term services and supports.  Based on the desire of the individual, these efforts further demonstrate our commitment to serve as a highly visible, accessible, and trusted resource for information intended to link persons with disabilities and older Pennsylvanians with the help and support necessary to age in place.”

 

Taking care of the state’s growing Veteran population depending on LIHEAP’s help to stay warm during the winter has moved onto the priority list for Dir. Silks’ office over the past few years as thousands of brave men and women have returned home from the battlefield to economically-challenged communities.  Even with the alarming rate of 20% and rising of eligible LIHEAP homes containing at least one Veteran member, the Director proudly reports that Pennsylvania has taken care of its retired-from-service population, so successfully in fact that “the number of applicants reporting they are veterans has slightly declined over the past few years. In the 2013/14 season there were 9882 veterans served by LIHEAP in Pennsylvania. That number decreased to 9353 in the 2014/15 season and was 8216 for the 2015/16 season.”

 

Looking ahead toward the long winter and beyond, Director Silks remains optimistic about the prospects of keeping every household that reaches out for help warm while still closing on a note of caution that because “the LIHEAP program in Pennsylvania does not receive any funding outside of the Federal allocation it receives.  If a cut in funding occurred, Pennsylvania would be unable to continue to serve its residents at the current rate.  For the 2016-2017 season, we raised the minimum benefit amount and added supplemental payments to households with elderly members, disabled members, and with children 5 and under.  A cut in LIHEAP funding would have a detrimental effect on Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable population.”

 

Sources:

  1. http://www.weather.gov/ctp/WinterWeatherAwarenessWeek
  2. http://newpittsburghcourieronline.com/2016/11/11/liheap-funds-now-available/
  3. http://triblive.com/local/valleynewsdispatch/11408004-74/energy-dollar-fund
  4. http://www.lockhaven.com/news/local-news/2016/11/helping-others%E2%80%88one-gallon-challenge-begins-as-winter-looms/
  5. http://triblive.com/local/northhills/11577384-74/property-sold-drive
  6. https://www.yccac.org/index.php/energy-programs/liheap
  7. http://www.witf.org/news/2016/11/state-p-u-c-prep-for-winter-now-before-it-gets-cold.php
  8. http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/pennsylvania-launches-pa-link-to-community-care-300241201.html

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