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The NEAR hotline is maintained by the LIHEAP Clearinghouse, a program of the US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. It is not affiliated with the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance.

 

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November 2016 LIHEAP News Wrap Up

Staying Ahead of the Storm:  November 2016 LIHEAP News Wrap-Up

Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown

 

The sky got notably grayer around the Northeast throughout the month of November, marking the arrival of winter just as LIHEAP aid did to states that depend on the program to fight extreme weather year in and out.  This year was no exception, with Accuweather forecasting that “we expect this November, and this winter for that matter, to be significantly colder than last year.”  Massachusetts – a repeat customer for this kind of frigid season – began sounding the alarm around the state, both in making utility customers aware of the availability of energy bill assistance through their local community action agencies, and at the same time, encouraging them to apply urgently if they hadn’t already.

 

With over $130 million released for aid, the sheer size of the state’s eligible population was expected to keep the application hotlines buzzing as boots on the ground like North Shore Community Action fuel assistance program director Dan DeAngelis reminded of the danger that “in exceptionally cold winters, or if energy prices spike, it’s not unusual for clients to run out of money as early as February.”  Doubling down on this urgent position, Action for Boston Community Development President/CEO John J. Drew – whose organization covers an enormous region of historically LIHEAP-dependant communities including Boston, Brookline, Newton and the greater Mystic Valley area (Malden, Medford, Everett, Melrose, Stoneham, Winchester and Woburn, representing 26,000 households helped in FY2015 alone – reminded the public that poverty statistics show continuing high numbers of the poor in Massachusetts and the nation, and winter adds a harsh dimension to their lives.  Every year there are older citizens choosing between heat, medicine or food. There are children huddled in bitter cold apartments unable to do homework. We have people dying in fires caused by unsafe space heaters. ABCD has the resources of the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program that can help these people to survive the cold and get back on their feet during the winter…It’s critical to determine eligibility and get into the system now, so fuel can be delivered as soon as the oil trucks roll out for the 2016-2017 season.

 

Though the majority of utility recipients typically prefer to stay anonymous, an ABCD client bravely spoke up on the life-saving difference the help makes in her family’s life throughout the bitter winter months.  Preferring to be identified only by her first name, Dorchester resident Paulette painted a sobering reality where “people like myself are making the choice between heating and eating.  It’s very important to have programs like this in the community because there are lot of people who are out of work and without a steady income. This is a way to stretch that dollar and get what’s needed to survive.”

 

Along the Coastline, South Shore Community Action Council – which runs the LIHEAP program in 35 communities on the South Shore and Cape Cod – noted that over 9,000 homes were served last year, and expected business to stay steady throughout this winter season, while Garth Patterson, director of Fall River-based Citizens for Citizens, reported that the lines were lit up and out the door, on the phone and in person respectively, as hundreds of desperate working-class families came pouring in, noting that “we’re well over 7,000 applications already.”  Appealing to those eligible households who often battle the stigma of asking the government for what is often negatively viewed as “a handout,” Director Patterson was quick to note that, in fact, LIHEAP “is not just a program for people in poverty. Over 80 percent of our applicants are people who are working or have worked their entire lives and now are on Social Security and have a fixed income.”

 

In neighboring Pennsylvania, CAAs around the state were rallying the same kind of call to action, with public-private fundraising partnerships like The Dollar Energy Fund – paid for by energy providers including West Penn Power, Duquesne Light, Columbia Gas and Peoples Gas and customer donations – were rolling up their sleeves to raise almost $800,000 in additional utility assistance funds – motivated by the same reality facing states all over New England as West Penn Power spokesperson Todd Meyers reminded the already-shivering public that “we’re looking more cold; that will mean higher bills and people using more electric and natural gas.  If you get a bill and it’s a shocker, the worst thing you can do is to put it aside and wish it away”

 

Doubling down on that same message from the state Capitol, PA Governor Tom Wolfe proudly declared that “making sure all Pennsylvanians are safe and healthy is my top priority,” adding that as part of that passion, “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.”  Public Utility Commission Chair Gladys M. Brown echoed her Governor’s call, emphasizing that with temperatures continuing to drop as thermostats reflexively went up, “now is the time for consumers to enroll in LIHEAP, and to explore other assistance programs that are available through their utilities or from various non-profit groups, to be certain that everyone is fully prepared for the colder months ahead.”

 

As one of the Northeast’s largest and most diversely populated states, urban centers like Philadelphia and Pittsburg all the way through the hundreds of rural miles of farmland and Indian Tribe territories alike depended on the $185,523,200 provided in assistance, and as with past years, expected to spend all of it with more people still knocking on doors for help even after that.  PA State Senator Joe Scarnati, representing several of those countless rural counties – including McKean, Potter, Tioga, Elk, Cameron, Clinton, Jefferson and Clearfield – who rely on LIHEAP assistance year in and out, fought back at the fear of applying, drawing a common causality among applicants where “with the winter months quickly approaching, the burden of an added expense for heating can be especially heavy on low-income families and those individuals on fixed incomes.  This program can provide a great service to those who may need assistance with heating costs.  I urge residents who may be eligible and need help to apply for the LIHEAP program.”

 

Up in Vermont, to help pitch in a helping hand in serving the most households possible applying for assistance around the small but traditionally shivering wintertime state, Merchants Bank was challenging the good will of their local community to match funds being raised for the WARMTH energy-assistance non-profit dollar-for-dollar up to $35,000.  Vermont’s largest bank and a longtime supporter of the cause proudly stepped up to the plate in the spirit of what Merchant’s Senior V.P. Anita Bourgeois characterized as an effort to “support our neighbors this winter. CVOEO does a fantastic job of distributing funds to our community members so that they will have heat. We are grateful for their commitment to our community and are pleased to partner with them again this year.”  Administered through one of the state’s largest non-profit, the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, Executive Director Jan Demers pointed to the importance of the additional funding as a backstop to battle the “reduction in LIHEAP funding (that)…puts many limited income families at increased risk of going without heat during the winter…WARMTH funding provides an emergency lifeline for families in need so they can stay safe and warm in their homes.”

 

As the winter winds swept across the plains of Iowa, so too did news that $22 million in LIHEAP aid was on the way, but with equal urgency, the competing headline that vulnerable households had already run up nearly TWICE that amount in past-due, with a staggering $40 million in overdue bills, according to Radio Iowa, the most since 1999.  Driving home just how dangerous this trend was, Iowa LIHEAP Director Jerry McKim pointed out that “just for September and October, there were 8,696 households disconnected.  So going into November, even though the weather was mild, and it doesn’t looks like it coming out, we have nearly 9,000 households at least without power.  If you’re scheduled to be disconnected and the National Weather Service says it’s going to be 20 degrees or colder within 24 hours of that disconnection, the utilities have to hold off.  The blanket protection that runs from November 1st though March 31st only applies to households certified eligible for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program or the weatherization program.”  For those households keeping an ear out for how to get help with avoiding these life-threatening shut-offs, Raccoon Valley Radio was putting out the word that help was available right now at Community Action Agencies around the state like New Opportunities of Greene County, whose LIHEAP coordinator Teresa Lansman emphasized that “I tell families to come in because there are several different ways that we can run income…We try to see if we can help them out the best we can.”

 

Out West in Mountain country, North Dakota received the welcome news from the Jamestown Sun that over $22 million had been released in LIHEAP assistance to help both urban and rural centers, as well as the considerable Tribal Territories throughout the state.  If disbursement trends repeat from FY2015, approximately $5 million of the appropriation will be split according to:

  • Spirit Lake Tribe: $1,383,336
  • Standing Rock Sioux Tribe: $1,588,876
  • Three Affiliated Tribes: $915,498
  • Turtle Mountain Chippewa Band: $2,059,871

 

Out in the Yukon, the news was unfortunately not so good, with word hitting hard on rural communities from Alaska’s Energy Desk that this winter, for the first time in 10 years, the state wasn’t in a position to help avoid “more than 9,000 households (that)…will see their heating assistance benefits reduced. Another 1,300 will likely be booted entirely from a now-defunct state program designed to keep low-income Alaskans out of the cold.”  A consequence of the state’s plummeting oil prices, budget cuts followed, including gutting state-funded supplemental heating assistance, resulting in a corresponding decline in “payments to those households by 30 percent this year, which means that more than 10,300 households in the state will see their benefits reduced or eliminated entirely this year…While the largest numbers of people were cut in urban areas of the state,  the cuts are hitting especially hard in rural areas, where it’s more expensive to live and fuel prices are still high.”

 

Hitting Native American Tribal territories just as hard, the head of the Workforce Development Center for the Bristol Bay Native Association, Rae Belle Whitcomb, confirmed the phone won’t stop ringing with concern in her office, so much so that “basically every day we have some kind of crisis application on the phone, which is typical this time of year.  What can and does happen sometimes is people will move in together. So there’ll be more families living together because they can’t afford not to.”  Speaking up on behalf of constituents like these who struggle to keep the heat on throughout the state’s freezing winters, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (offered the powerful observation – reword) that “as I travel around the state, I regularly meet Alaskans who are concerned about their ability to pay to heat their homes, and I know many are bracing for even higher bills as we head into the winter months.”

 

Sources:

  1. http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/november-2016-to-be-significantly-colder-than-last-year-northeastern-us-winter-weather-outlook/60954888
  2. http://sampan.org/2016/10/abcd-launches-fuel-assistance-program-prepping-residents-for-bitter-winter/
  3. http://melrose.wickedlocal.com/news/20161104/programs-underway-to-provide-warm-homes-this-winter
  4. http://levittownnow.com/2016/11/21/program-that-helps-families-with-heat-accepting-applications/
  5. http://citizensvoice.com/news/heating-assistance-program-kicks-off-for-2016-17-season-1.2111990 /
  6. http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/wolf-administration-kicks-off-the-low-income-home-energy-assistance-program-liheap-season-300355158.html
  7. http://republicanherald.com/news/heating-assistance-applications-available-1.2111599
  8. http://triblive.com/local/valleynewsdispatch/11408004-74/energy-dollar-fund
  9. http://www.senatorscarnati.com/scarnati-announces-heating-assistance-program-now-open-for-2016-2017
  10. https://vtdigger.org/2016/11/21/merchants-banks-35000-warmth-challenge-grant/
  11. https://www.radioiowa.com/2016/11/21/disconnections-for-unpaid-utility-bills-most-since-1999/
  12. http://raccoonvalleyradio.com/2016/11/liheap-applications-now-available-for-everyone
  13. http://www.jamestownsun.com/news/local/4150291-liheap-funds-available
  14. http://bismarcktribune.com/news/state-and-regional/north-dakota-receives-million-for-heating-assistance/article_aacc9d27-07bc-574e-b55a-344c3fe8d44f.html
  15. http://www.ktoo.org/2016/11/11/rural-alaska-loss-heating-assistance-hits-hard/
  16. http://www.deltadiscovery.com/story/2016/11/02/statewide/liheap-funds-for-alaskan-heating-bill-relief/4827.html

 

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