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LIHEAP Lights Up New England

Keeping Massachusetts’ Most Vulnerable Households Warm This Winter

 

Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown

 

Massachusetts has long been the heart of New England, its Normal Rockwell portraits of the winter months with snow-swept yards and children sledding and skating outside.   The colder, harsher reality for many families in modern day is far less innocent but just as punishing in terms of the life-threateningly frigid weather, with Boston’s NPR Station singling out one such resident, Robbin Taylor, reporting in February, 2015:

 

It’s so cold in the kitchen of Robbin Taylor’s home, in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, that everything is frozen. Taylor picks up a plastic bottle of corn oil and gives it a shake. Nothing moves.  Taylor’s electric stove is the only source of heat on the first floor of the home she shares with her daughter and 6-year-old granddaughter. An oil tank in Taylor’s basement is empty and she has no money to fill it. The $900 in oil assistance she received at the beginning of winter is long gone.  Oil companies are not required to make deliveries. ‘I searched the Internet and I found out that diesel fuel is what the fuel companies use for heating oil,’ Taylor says. So now, when Taylor can scrape together some cash, she takes a can to the gas station, fills it with diesel, and pours that into her oil tank.  ‘Ten gallons will heat you overnight,’ she says. ‘Nothing bad happened, we had heat for the day.’…Heat for the day. A comfort many of us take for granted eludes tens of thousands of families in Massachusetts, just as Friday night’s low temperature could go below zero.”

 

Just one of many demographics of households who depend on the LIHEAP assistance they do receive to keep the heat on during harsh cold months, in an exclusive conversation with Louis M. Martin, Director of the state’s LIHEAP program, he confirmed that “annually, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts sees a diverse pool of LIHEAP applicant households including working poor, elderly and disabled, families with young children, returning Veterans and those recently unemployed.  With the recession that began in 2008, the Commonwealth did see an increase in application numbers over several years.  It is expected Massachusetts fuel assistance agencies will receive approximately the same number of applications as was received last year (212,000).”

 

Breaking their distribution process down more vivid terms across the many faces that flesh out the universal demand for a program Director Martin confirms “serves an assortment of households throughout the year,” the program’s demographics cover a broad swath of any local community, ranging from “those most vulnerable households that include the elderly, the disabled and those households with children under 6 years old.  Of those served households in 2015, 39.7% were households had a least one member that was elderly; 31.1% identified one or more members being disabled and; 16.4% of served households had one or more children under the age of 6 years old.”

 

“In FY2015, 14,762 LIHEAP applying households reported having at least one veteran in the household.  In Massachusetts, each city or town has a Local Veterans’ Service Officer that acts as a resource for resident Veterans.  Many of the local LIHEAP agencies have relationships with the local Veterans’ Service Officer and work together to serve the needs of veterans and their families.”

 

Even with the progress made in FY 2015 when, the Director proudly revealed, “180,010 households were served by the program,” supply is still far outweighed by unfulfilled demand as communities big and small face similar shortages, as evinced by the Boston Globe’s continuous coverage throughout the year of this plight, highlighting the ongoing work on the front lines among local Community Action Agencies and private charities across the state through the story of John Drew:

 

“The president of Action for Boston Community Development, said his group was expecting the additional funds because of the piecemeal way the government has been funded in recent years, and could use them to help people who heat with pricey electricity. Still, he said, his group was soliciting donations for its winter emergency campaign to make up for less support from the state government.”

 

Even with the State Government shortfall, Governor Charlie Baker through his office pledged this year that his office would “work with the Legislature to ensure necessary fuel assistance resources are available to the most vulnerable.”  A consistently supportive position where Martin affirms “the Massachusetts’ political delegation have consistently been vocal about their backing of the LIHEAP program,” he adds of that robust advocacy that “the congressional delegation often endorses the highest level of funding for the program as well as signs letter of support for LIHEAP.  Further, the Commonwealth’s governor, Charles Baker, as Vice-Chair of Coalition of Northeastern Governors (CONEG), often lends his support for both the program and the swift release of its funding before the cold winter months arrive.”

 

The Director seems to reserve his loudest praises for the aforementioned Community Action Agencies, who the State entrusts with the most important task of distributing LIHEAP funds into the communities they serve: “The Massachusetts LIHEAP program is administered through a network of 20 community based non-profits and 1 local municipal agency which serves 22 service areas throughout the state.  All of the LIHEAP provider agencies have the experience necessary to provide services to and advocate for low income families and individuals.”

 

Detailing the aggressive outreach campaign put into play by these proactive agencies months before enrollment seasons open to ensure that maximum word is spread about the program’s availability, Martin adds that “each of the 21 local administrating agencies (LAAs) are responsible for promoting the fuel assistance program in their service areas.  Agencies begin promoting the LIHEAP over the summer to its reapplying applicant households.  In the fall, agencies begin publicizing their program for new applicants through community events and organizations, schools, local traditional and social media, local businesses and public institutions.  At the State level, the Department of Housing and Community Development publishes the Cold Relief brochure.  This brochure describes the LIHEAP as well as energy conservation programs- the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), and the Heating System Repair and Replacement Program (HEARTWAP).  The brochure is used as a resource for program providers, energy vendors, city, town and state government officials, and community organizations.  The brochure is posted to the Department of Housing and Community Development’s website.”

 

Another powerful partnership that the CAAs have taken up with local organizations in has come with charities and non-profits’ willingness to team up for “fundraising activities to further support LIHEAP households as well as partner with local organizations including philanthropic, other non-profits, and local town government,” the Director explains, moved with enough obvious appreciation to proudly spotlight the “many private, charitable organizations that assist Massachusetts residents with heating their homes.  The Citizens Energy Corporation offers a one time delivery of oil at a discounted rate as well as offers a gas heat assistance program.  The Good Neighbor Fund is run by the Salvation Army of Massachusetts.  It offers a one-time benefit to lower income households that did not qualify for LIHEAP.  The Emergency Food and Shelter Program is a United Way program and often provides assistance through the local agencies administering LIHEAP.  Catholic Charities also provides assistance to low income households including heating assistance.”

 

Among the innovations these partnerships have produced out of the sophisticated system of data collection and comparison employed by the Director’s office to maximize LIHEAP’s impact throughout the state, Martin’s team has stayed on the cutting edge, allowing for a faster facilitation of help courtesy of a new application where he excitedly explains that “rather than having a separate crisis benefit, Massachusetts LIHEAP developed a FastTrack system for prioritizing and expediting services for households experiencing heat emergencies.  Local administrating agencies are required to provide emergency service within 24 hours of receipt of a complete application between November 1st and April 30th.  If the emergency affects the health and safety of the household then the response needs to occur within 18 hours rather than 24 hours.”

 

Part of the proactive strategy the Director’s office strives to maintain throughout the tireless work they put into making sure the maximum number of homes in need receive the helping hand LIHEAP has to offer, one that he reveals resulted “in FY2015 in 18,357 emergency LIHEAP households being served by local agencies,” a rewarding number that backs up Director Martin’s firm belief that “LIHEAP is a lifesaving program.  As the cost of living in the state continues to climb, it is often difficult for low income households to make ends meet.  The support that they receive through LIHEAP helps ease their financial burden and allows for the little resources they have to be spread farther.  Further, the winter months are very cold and often snowy in the Commonwealth.  With many of our LIHEAP households comprised of elderly and disabled persons including homebound individuals with medication conditions, keeping these special populations’ homes warm is especially critical to their health and welfare.”

 

Sources:

http://www.wbur.org/2015/02/13/home-energy-help

https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2015/01/26/massachusetts-gets-another-million-home-heating-assistance/y0Zd841snvFiJ9ayzX4sgP/story.html

https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2015/02/24/community-groups-seek-more-heating-aid/kzx2naFOm2kEeDuSFi9TCI/story.html

 

 

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