Each year in March, hundreds of advocates from across the United States gather on Capitol Hill to discuss with lawmakers the importance of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.
LIHEAP is a federally funded program in which funds are funneled to states in the form of block grants. The funds are distributed locally through organizations, like community action agencies, who regularly help connect individuals in their area with resources that can help improve their lifestyle or assist in times of need. LIHEAP, specifically, is designated to help individuals and families—particularly those with children, elderly, individuals with disabilities, or Veterans—maintain payments to their local utilities to ensure that home energy sources are kept on during times of extreme heat or cold.
Each year, as Congress begins its discussions and debates over how to fund the multitude of programs put before it, LIHEAP Action Day occurs, providing utilities, community action agencies, local leaders and impacted individuals to remind Congress of the importance of the program.
Sherri Hahn, community services partner at Laclede Gas Company in Missouri, has attended LIHEAP Action Day for four years in a row. At home, Sherri works directly with many of the community action agencies in the greater Kansas City area that distribute LIHEAP funds to households in the region.
“My goal is to have a strong relationship with the community action agencies that administer the LIHEAP funds,” Sherri said. “I also help to facilitate their own role in the community and help them find ways to communicate about the program and distribute the program funds.”
As a regular attendee of LIHEAP Action Day, Sherri knows and appreciates the importance of having face-to-face time with leaders on Capitol Hill.
“Action Day is a great opportunity to share our primary message of the critical value of this program for families in our community,” Sherri said. “Being present on Capitol Hill allows us to talk directly with decision makers about how LIHEAP is having a real and tangible impact.”
This year, Sherri traveled to at least 10 offices on Capitol Hill, accompanied by several LIHEAP advocates, including Tawana Woods.
“Tawana was an outstanding addition to our Action Day team this year,” said Sherri, who personally invited Tawana to attend Action Day in Washington. “The general rule of thumb is that you’re more effective in conversations with political leaders when your job gets you closer to the streets. Tawana is on the street, and I could not have been more pleased to have her join us this year.”
Tawana is the LIHEAP Manager for the United Services Community Action Agency, which is based in Kansas City, Missouri, which is part of Sherri’s service area. This year was Tawana’s first LIHEAP Action Day, although she has been in her current position for two years.
“There is a lot going on with LIHEAP funding right now, and I wanted to see where it all originated,” Tawana said. “It’s very important to our community that we get what we need to service our families and households. Funding has been on the decline, and I wanted to talk about that impact.”
Tawana considered part of her role at LIHEAP Action Day to be education: helping representatives and their aides to fully understand the mechanics of the program and sharing how these funds eventually make their way to families in crisis.
“I think that social services often become a line item on a long list of areas that need funding,” Tawana said. “It can be surprising for elected leaders to find out that YES, people in their own community are living in poverty, and these are good, hardworking people that can benefit from programs like LIHEAP.”
Chris Hickling, director of government relations for Edison Electric Institute and board member of the National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition (NEUAC), the primary organization behind many aspects of LIHEAP Action Day, also attends LIHEAP Action Day each year.
“Effective advocacy in any forum demands that coalitions are organized, informed and reflective of the true breadth and depth of support,” Chris said. “Our network is that broad, and that deep, and it shines its brightest on LIHEAP Action Day. The first Action Day was held in 2003, and LIHEAP program funding was less than $2 billion. Action Day was part of the effort that grew LIHEAP to $5.1 billion. Today, as the program has been cut by more than one-third, Action Day is more important than ever.”
Over the past several years, Congress has regularly cut funding to LIHEAP, reducing the funds that are available for states and, ultimately, limiting the number of households that the program can serve. Gathering advocates and champions on Capitol Hill plays a critically important part of sharing the stories of the men, women and children who benefit from the program.
The Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, which sends representatives to Action Day each year, aims to continue to share the stories of the communities that rely on LIHEAP to keep families safe. The Campaign regularly shares interviews and insights from leaders across the country who see firsthand the many ways that the program benefits communities, as well as the many ways that reduced funding hurts utilities, community action agencies, neighborhoods and families.
As more LIHEAP champions attend LIHEAP Action Day and speak up on behalf of the program, advocates are hopeful that Members of Congress will better understand the implications that their funding and budget decisions have on real families and communities across the country. Follow the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance for news and developments on the 2017 LIHEAP Action Day!