January 2019: LIHEAP News Wrap Up

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GOVERNMENT SHUT-DOWN SPIKES LIHEAP DEMAND AS HEATING BILLS PILE UP AROUND THE U.S

Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown

Among the many fall-outs from the longest Government shut-down in U.S. history are the millions of working-and-middle-class contractors and Government employees who have been out-of-work since December in the heart of winter, watching their thermostat rise right alongside the stacks of unpaid bills. Including heating bills, politicians in cold-weather states have been motivated to pick up the slack in their own legislatures. For instance, in Massachusetts, The Inquirer and Mirror reported this month that “a bipartisan group of state lawmakers reached out late last week to Gov. Charlie Baker and asked him to assist state residents at risk of getting the cold shoulder from a federal funding shortfall in the low-income heating assistance program known as LIHEAP…Most of the nearly 48,000 supported oil-heat households have exhausted their fuel assistance benefit and all will have exhausted it by the end of January, leaving them in a perilous position for the rest of the winter...More than 70 House and Senate members joined state Sens. Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) and Michael Rodrigues (D-Westport ) in requesting a $30 million appropriation meant to shore up shortages in heating fuel access.”

 

Speaking on the urgency facing his freezing constituents, state Sen. Julian Cyr (D-Cape & Islands), commented that “as the need for fuel assistance is increasing throughout the commonwealth, state legislators and Gov. Baker must work swiftly to make sure that our most vulnerable are protected during these bitter winter months.  I am proud to be part of this bipartisan effort to ensure tens of thousands of seniors, veterans and families with children get the help they need.” 1 

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr reminded the Federal powers that be that real lives were at stake, specifically “seniors, veterans, families with children and others are counting on our Commonwealth to provide the home heating support they need, particularly in light of the federal reductions.”  While Senator Michael J. Rodrigues highlighted the sense of urgency that time was running out, arguing that "this money isn't going to mean much in May or June, so it’s critical that we do this as soon as possible," and Representative William Crocker underscored the imbalance between the reality that “costs are increasing and assistance is decreasing; couple that with the colder than usual winter and you have an extremely dangerous situation.  I ask that the Governor act swiftly to provide for more fuel assistance in a supplemental budget."    

 

Speaking directly on the impact from the front lines, the Lynn Economic Opportunity non-profit profiled Marylyn, an 86-year-old senior living with her husband Louis, 94, who explained that even at that age, initially she and her husband were reluctant to accept LIHEAP assistance for the same reason so many others initially do: “I am a proud person, and believe we should all be responsible for ourselves.”  Still, as the freezing winds closed in around the log cabin the couple share beside a frozen lake, for as charming as the view might sound in a painting, it was freezing in real life at temperatures that presented a special threat to the health of both elderly recipients, causing them to reach out to L.E.O. about their fuel assistance program in January.  A reality for “most of the close to 48,000 oil heat households have exhausted their fuel assistance benefit and all will have exhausted it by the end of January, leaving them in a perilous position for the rest of the winter,” explains Birgitta S. Damon, President of Lynn Economic Opportunity, Inc. & MASSCAP, who added that along with the strain of winter weather and the prolonged shutdown, “households that heat with delivered fuels such as home heating oil are particularly vulnerable. At close to three dollars per gallon for heating oil, the fuel assistance benefit will allow oil heat households to cover the cost of 1¾ tanks of oil — a real and dangerous problem when it takes 3-4 tanks to get a typical household through tough New England winters.”

 

Picking up the slack all over the frigid Northeast, down in Atlantic City, KYW 1060 AM Newsradio broadcast an important message from Greg Dunlap, PSE&G vice president of customer operations that even the utilities were stepping up to do their part, reasoning that because “the federal government shutdown is a reminder of circumstances in which our customers can face financial hardships, during the 60-day period, customer accounts will be locked and protected from shut off.”  Atlantic City Electric spokesman Frank Tedesco added for his company’s part that “we do have a budget billing program for customers to make their payments easier to budget month-to-month. We have payment arrangements available for our customers as well… Atlantic City Electric offers a number of other programs, including the Universal Service Fund, New Jersey SHARES, and the Payment Assistance for Gas and Electric (PAGE), which appears to be a good fit for the furloughed. It helps people with low to moderate income who are going through a temporary financial crisis.”

 

In the Nation’s capitol, leading utility Washington Gas took to the airwaves to make sure the public knew they were not looking to make life any harder on those struggling with the shutdown to make their energy bills on time, with Adrian Chapman, President and CEO of WG, reassuring impacted households that “as the shutdown of the Federal Government continues, Washington Gas announced Tuesday, January 8, 2019 that it will offer: flexible payment arrangements for government employees directly impacted and work with affected employees so that they continue to receive their natural gas service without interruption…. With hundreds of thousands of people impacted by the ongoing federal government shutdown, Pepco is taking steps to expand awareness of the programs in place to help customers stay energized through temporary or extended financial hardship.  Pepco works closely with state, federal, and nonprofit partners to ensure they have the information and support they need to help customers manage their energy expenses during times of hardship.”

 

In Pennsylvania, Duquesne Light Company utilized the same strategy via its own press office to make sure their customers knew the utility was on the side of the customer, Michael Selep, Universal Services Manager at Duquesne Light, shining a bright one on the message they were spreading that “with winter weather hitting the region we like to remind all of our customers that help is available if they are having trouble paying their bill.  And, as the federal government shutdown continues into a fourth week, we know there may be even more customers in our service territory who could benefit from these long-standing energy assistance programs that DLC offers.”

 

Hitting the Midwest just as hard, the Chicago Sun Times highlighted Warming Centers being opened around the city, noting that “with temperatures in the single digits and wind chill values as low as 30 degrees below zero expected over the next week, Chicagoans struggling to keep warm have some options.  Several state-owned buildings, including 113 community centers, libraries and police stations, open their doors to anyone during daytime hours to provide relief from the cold,” noting of another lifeline that “for federal workers struggling to pay their heating bills during the partial government shutdown, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) is offering winter heating assistance to qualified government employees through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).”  ComEd added in their own note of support that “we are committed to providing affordable energy service for every customer.  Through our own programs, as well as programs offered by community and government partners, we can help customers make ends meet during tough times.”

 

Native American Tribes were feeling the freezing affect of both the weather and corresponding gap in badly needed funding for energy assistance that the shut-down was holding up, with the popular radio program Native American Calling reporting that “heating bills are projected to be a little higher this winter according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Winter Fuels Outlook. Expect to pay around 3 percent more if you heat with electricity, 5 percent more for gas and 20 percent more for home heating oil. The main reason for the increase is the higher fuel costs. In states like Alaska, North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, where temperatures can drop to -40 and lower, heating costs are a major burden and even a safety issue. Tribal programs like the Gwich’in Solar and Energy Efficiency in the Arctic Project and U.S. Government aid, like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), are designed to offset the high costs of heating.”

 

All the way across the country, in the Pacific Northwest, the powers that be at the largest utility in the biggest city center in Washington state were aggressively checking in with customers, telling Seattle.gov on “the 20th consecutive day of a federal government shutdown…(that) according to the United States Office of Personnel Management, over 10,000 people in Seattle are employed by the federal government, and many of those folks may be affected by the shutdown and missing their normal paychecks. If you are among them—or if you are just having a hard time making ends meet—Seattle City Light has payment plans and assistance programs that may help you.” 

This spirit of cooperation where the Federal Government could find none was alive and well around the entire United States throughout the first month of the new year, sending a powerful reminder that in spite of political differences, there was no dispute over the real-life difference energy assistance programs like LIHEAP were making during this time of economic crisis for millions of working-and-middle-class Americans.   With a 3-week continuing resolution just announced to re-open the Government till mid-February, while tens of thousands of affected families around the country race to play catch-up with their outstanding utility and other household bills, LIHEAP once again has served as a vital link between desperation and hope for millions during this frigid winter. 

 

Sources:

www.ack.net/news/20190122/state-lawmakers-seek-heating-assistance-funding-in-wake-of-shutdown  

www.capecodtoday.com/article/2019/01/17/244347-Rep-Will-Crocker-Among-Lawmakers-Seeking-Shore-Heating-Assistance   

www.itemlive.com/2019/01/13/commentary-fuel-assistance-is-personal/

https://kywnewsradio.radio.com/articles/news/major-corporations-museums-offer-freebies-furloughed-ease-burden-bills

http://www.fox5dc.com/home/washington-dc-shutdown-resources

https://www.duquesnelight.com/company/about/newsroom/2019/duquesne-light-company-highlights-energy-assistance-programs-available-to-customers

http://powerlines.seattle.gov/2019/01/09/need-assistance-to-pay-your-city-light-bill-we-can-help/

https://chicago.suntimes.com/news/warming-center-chicago-suburbs-liheap-heating/

https://www.apnews.com/c11111e78ec3488883ef8d4cb4f1a773

https://player.fm/series/native-america-calling-the-electronic-talking-circle-1157869/ep-01-14-19-the-high-cost-of-heat

Winter 2019 News Wrap-Up

Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown

With winter weather kicking into high gear around every part of the U.S. that traditionally counts on LIHEAP assistance, the local soldiers on the front lines of the battle to keep the millions of families warm this winter were working overtime to keep up with demand as temperatures plummeted, thermostats went up, and electric bills rose right along with them!  Brave recipients like Dungeness Valley residents Michelle and John Bonifazio spoke up to share their version of that nightmare with the Peninsula Daily News, who reported that Washington state couple “last year, Michelle and John faced the first of several rough patches…the heating bill soared. The couple applied for and received help, just in time, from Washington state’s federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.”

 

Admitting that “we were seriously behind,” the couple – raising a family that included a daughter and son all living under one roof – fell into “a very down, dark time in our life” before LIHEAP helped brighten the house and holidays up, help Michelle Bonifazio added “was humbling” to receive.  Across the country in Columbia, Missouri, Local television channel ACB 17 reported similar conditions both on the thermostat and corresponding heating costs as “frigid temperatures have chilled mid-Missouri early this year, leaving many people with high utility bills with months of cold weather remaining.” 

 

Stepping up to help turn up the heat and down the pressure on households struggling to make it through winter, a mother of four who preferred to remain anonymous admitted that "there's nothing I can do, I'd probably be sitting in the dark with my babies with candles, that's it. That's all I can do.”  Central Missouri Community Action’s energy assistance manager, Jennifer Donaldson, remarked on the family’s circumstance in context of the larger demand that “it is very eye opening how much poverty there is in our community and how many people go without either gas or electricity until our funding is available.”

 

Nearby in Illinois, the St. Louis Post Dispatch shared the holiday miracle that an extra $600,000 in LIHEAP funds would be released to Madison County, allowing thousands of additional families to receive energy assistance right when they needed it most, confirmed by Community Development Administrator Trudy Bodenbach, who mused that “we are thrilled that DCEO chose our agency to receive this additional funding.  DCEO recognized both the need here in Madison County, as well as our staff’s ability to utilize the funding in the most effective and efficient manner — to serve the greatest possible number of residents.”

 

Back in New England, in light of an alarming flurry of reports from local papers like the Berkshire Eagle’s that “state officials expect 20 percent more applicants for heating aid this year,” the paper published a powerful Op-Ed endorsing the proactive move by “members of the Berkshires legislative delegation” that “have pledged to do their best to convince Beacon Hill to furnish a supplemental budget allotment from the state (given)… The Bay State's allocation this year from the federal government totals $136.5 million, which is $11.2 million less than last year — despite the fact that oil, gas and electricity prices are rising. The commonwealth's reduction was more than any other state,” while cautioning that urgent action as required given “allocations have already begun to run out.”

 
            Next door, Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania dispatched Deb Davis, the utility’s manager of Universal Services, to re-assure the public that in light of the life-threatening weather, help was available for those in need, such that, “at Columbia Gas, we want our customers to be safe and warm this winter, which is why we want our customers to know about the availability of LIHEAP assistance.  As a natural gas utility, we are committed to providing our most vulnerable customers with resources like LIHEAP to help with their heating bills. If you or someone you know may be struggling to pay their heating bills, please apply for a LIHEAP grant as soon as possible.”

 

 

Sources:

 

1.     http://www.peninsuladailynews.com/news/keeping-warm-while-starting-fresh-sequim-couple-receives-peninsula-home-fund-help/

 

2.     https://www.abc17news.com/news/low-income-utility-assistance-programs-accepting-applications/908826833

 

3.     https://www.stltoday.com/suburban-journals/illinois/county-receives-additional-funding-for-liheap/article_93ca3711-bb8f-56e4-b7cb-90d3233147d5.html

 

4.     https://www.berkshireeagle.com/stories/our-opinion-liheap-cuts-to-the-state-need-to-be-explained,558805

 

5.     https://observer-reporter.com/sponsored/columbiagas/help-for-winter-heating-bills-now-available-through-liheap/article_ed356960-fa56-11e8-a15f-3b8d255dc483.html

December 2018: LIHEAP Helps California

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Central Coast Energy Keeps the Heat On For Thousands This Winter

Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown

December is a charitable time of year for non-profits like Central Coast Energy Services, who both give and receive – specifically appreciation for the vital energy assistance they provide to thousands of families across middle California, with Liz Moreno, Director of Marketing & Outreach, describing that thanks by the “bins and bins of mail” her office receives “each year, including a ton of Thank You cards, letters, emails, etc., and it’s not just seasonal, it’s all the time, throughout the year, and we have a bulletin board in one of our warehouses that has all the letters and notes posted.  So people definitely come back and let you know they’ve benefited from the help, and that it’s life-changing for some people.”

 

Serving the community for almost 40 years, Director Moreno’s nonprofit branched off in 2004 as a stand-alone 501C3, and has kept a constant current churning out energy assistance in overdrive due to higher and higher demand each year “as soon as that cold weather kicks in for us, our intake department goes into overdrive, and they start working 6 days a week processing all the applications to keep up with all the demand.  The shut-off notices especially start coming in really heavily, so that’s definitely when our program is the most impacted and when we spend a ton of funding.” 

 

Unique to California’s traditional reputation for warm weather year round, Central Coast Energy experiences a more conventional seasonal shift mid-fall wherein “the cold weather begins around November for us and is now stretching into May of the following year.  Before the colder season started in October and we’d start seeing all the applications coming in at the top of that month, but now that the seasons seem to be kind of pushing later in the year, we’re seeing the applications delayed, so there’s a weather factor for us.” 

 

Equally uncommon to C.C.E.’s service demographic is the fact that “its driven by the Agriculture industry, so there’s a lot of people essentially working outside in the fields – lettuce fields and strawberry fields – and so when there’s good weather, there’s a good harvest and good crops, but when it gets cold, that’s when all these big agriculture companies start laying everybody off, and some of them go to other states like Arizona, but for the most part, when people start getting laid off because of the cold weather, that’s when people start applying for the program.”  Working in cooperation with other charitable organizations around the region, the Director details a coordinated drive where “all of our community-based organization partners start seeing an impact as well of people seeking services – from food banks to other social services, and they refer all those people to us.  So their referrals on top of all the other people who know about us, we get really impacted during that time.”

 

Alongside their traditional role helping households keep the electricity on in their own local community, Director Moreno and her non-profit’s passion has driven them to go even further in advocating for those they serve and by extension, the LIHEAP program in general, founding the LIHEAP HELPS CALIFORNIA Campaign in 2017, a reaction the Director explains to “the President’s budget proposal, and just putting a face to LIHEAP because it’s a relatively unknown program in general. Everybody knows the food banks, everybody knows animal rescue, but people aren’t familiar with LIHEAP and what it is and how critical it is to low and fixed-income households.  So the campaign is how we got started, and we want to put people out there to share their story and the impact that LIHEAP has on them and their households and families and really ‘What would that do?’ without that benefit.  Some people say, ‘Its only $350,’ but for somebody who’s living on a small amount of money a month to pay their rent and get all their medical costs and just for food to survive, that money goes along way.  That’s especially true for people in Emergency situations that we help with more than the max benefit, so when the President’s budget for both 2018 and 2019 said LIHEAP was a ‘low impact program and unable to demonstrate strong performance outcomes,’ that’s why I developed our Community Impact Information Sheet (see below), because it shows exactly how LIHEAP has an impact in our communities.”

 Back home, the program’s recipients were picking up the advocacy mantle in their own brave way, stepping out from behind the statistics to put a real human face on vital assistance that several describe in sobering candor in terms of just how badly off they’d be during the winter without it:

 

Gina Cassidy: “The reason I am here today is to get assistance for HEAP, one of the reasons is my right ankle, I fell down 26 stairs and am unable to work right now, I’m currently disabled, and am having a hard time, and this program is helping me get through that rough time.  I have four children, and without this program, I don’t know where I’d be.”

Sandra McDonald: “I live in San Bernardino, California.  I’d like to start out saying that we are blessed to have some kind of utility assistance with this program, and if you cut it, then there’s going to be a lot of people, and a lot more elderly people, who are doing without.  If you would come and see these people out here, you would be appalled, and if you take this away from us, you’re going to have a lot of people destitute and don’t know what to do, and children also.”

 

Pamela (last name omitted): “I’ve been an educator since 1982.  I’ll have money one week, and the next week make very little money.  So this program has been very helpful for me, and keeping my utilities on, I fully appreciate it.  Please do not get rid of this program.  For someone over the age of 50 like myself and unemployed, we need this program.”

Sue (last name omitted): “I just got assistance from this program, which is so important, for me and my family.  I have a disabled vet at home on a fixed income, and if this program wasn’t here, how would I cook hot meals, or how would we take hot showers or cool ourselves on the hot summer days Southern California is known for.  Would my children do their homework in the dark? We need this program, thanks.”

 

With Weatherization playing an equally-important role in providing energy efficiency in both the short and done long term, Director Moreno prides herself on just how personal her organization treats every home they’re helping make warmer, finding that rewarding spirit is infectious among her staff, confirming that “with the people who go to weather homes, all of the work is done in-house.  So it’s our employees, all of whom go through extensive training and are certified with all the different licenses they have to have, so all of the work we do is in-house, men and women, who go out and do the assessments, the weatherization work, the follow-up inspections, and the fact that when we’re out conducting outreach, we can speak to the quality of the work being done in these homes because we know the people going out there and doing the installations.  We provide weatherization and energy assistance to people whether they’re home-owners or renters, apartments, mobile homes, and if you have your utilities included in your rent or are sub-metered— everybody and anybody that we can, we help as much as possible.”

 

For the Director personally, she identifies the greatest gratification she takes from her job day in and out after “being with our agency for close to 10 years” as the knowledge that “at the end of the day, we truly are helping people.  If people call in saying they need help, we’re going to help them now, not months later.  If they need a new furnace, we’re going to install a whole furnace installation, that’s $6000 in itself, if you need a water heater, we’re going to help you, we’re the real deal!  Our program really does help people, and I think with all the funding ups and downs you go through working at a non-profit or a contract that’s slated for elimination every year, the thing that really makes it worth it is serving people and helping to improve their lives, making their homes more healthy and safe and more energy efficient.  So to be able to help them afford more essential needs is just super-important.” 

 

Outside of Central Coast Energy’s local advocacy on behalf of LIHEAP, Director Moreno helped found the LIHEAP HELPS CALIFORNIA campaign, partnering with national organizations like NEUAC and others to take Capitol Hill by storm on LIHEAP ACTION DAY in March of 2018, recalling that “we went to Washington D.C. and visited both Republican and Democrat offices were accepting and saw the value of LIHEAP once you give them the numbers and the impact that LIHEAP has in their own communities where their servicing area is, they appreciate it.  I think the thing that’s missing is the information, which is not out there, so when you don’t know about it, I think it’s easy to dismiss the program.  But once all these elected official and their staff saw the impact the program has on their communities, that’s when you get the ‘A-Ha’ moment where then it’s not as easy to dismiss it or cross it off from the budget.”

 

Necessary for the simple, real fact that year in and out, LIHEAP proves itself time and again to be a life-saving program, Director Moreno heartily agrees, reasoning in closing that “Oh my Gosh, absolutely I think it’s a very critical program!  The fact that it’s been slated for elimination the last two years is kind of scary, the way people are thinking, that it’s a program people can do without.  If I may, I can give you the example of an applicant we had a few years ago where the day before we were all going to shut down for Thanksgiving break, I was contacted through a social worker in Santa Cruz county, and she said ‘I have this woman with a young son, 11 years old, with 7 different machines keeping him alive,’ and she wasn’t able to pay her electric bill so PG&E shut her off!  So her son’s life was literally in danger, and we went into action, contacted PG&E, partnered with several other community-based organizations, and were able to restore her service and keep her son alive essentially.  That’s not an exaggeration, so our program really does impact people.  That’s a really strong case, but it happens more than we would like to think, and so that’s why our work is so critical in the community.”

 

Contacts:

Central Coast Energy Services website: https://www.energyservices.org/

LIHEAP Helps California Campaign website: https://liheaphelpscalifornia.org/

Campaign Videos/Testimonials:

The LIHEAP Difference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yG4UY8mApXg

LIHEAP in Action at CVOC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3HT93Cao-XA