Alabama: In the LIHEAP Spotlight

Sweet Hot Alabama: The Campaign chats with LIHEAP Program Manager

Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown

As catchy as the Lynard Skynard classic "Sweet Home Alabama" is, the state a lot more sweat and, for many, a lot less sweet during the punishing heat of Alabama summers. As the Alabama state LIHEAP Program Manager, Jennifer B. Lee often provides the only shelter for vulnerable households who depend on energy assistance to keep the air conditioner on throughout the summer.

"In the last few weeks, the daily temps have spiked into the mid-90’s, which is expected here in July and August," Lee said. "This typically leads to more households applying in the remaining months of the fiscal year due to higher electric bills."

Working overtime to make sure as many homes in need of assistance were helped as possible, Alabama's Community Action Agencies (CAAs) have been putting major points on the board already this year, with Lee proudly pointing to a mid-year report:

"As of today, our program has assisted 24,719 unduplicated households with cooling benefits (out of 25,203 applications) and 2,533 unduplicated households with crisis cooling benefits (out of 2,551 applications). This is comparable to what we experienced by this timeframe last year, and we have seen a slight increase in applications for disabled and households with small children this summer compared to 2016."

The decidedly Southern state enjoys bi-partisan support for LIHEAP. Former Governor Bentley declared August LIHEAP MONTH in 2016, noting that the Statehouse urged "a heightened awareness of energy poverty in communities throughout the state. We look to government to do those things that we cannot alone do -- to build roads and bridges and schools, to protect and defend us, to educate our children. But we also look to government to help those who have needs greater than those alone we can meet. LIHEAP is a shining example of such a program." 

The frontline champions in CAAs are responsible for managing the mechanics of the program day-in and day-out. This includes making sure every family who comes in their front doors or over the phone lines are helped. Lee considers a key to their success the close network of cooperation on outreach between the State LIHEAP office and the 21 CAAs.

"They have a very good working relationship," Lee said. "When a household contacts our office for information, we refer them to the appropriate LIHEAP office in their county or contact the local office directly on their behalf.  The sub-grantees conduct outreach efforts such as placing notices in local newspapers regarding how and when to apply, visiting senior centers and senior apartment complexes to complete applications on-site, establishing certain time periods at the beginning of the cooling program for the elderly and disabled to apply, and providing flyers to local vendors to post sharing information about the program and how to apply. In general, this will occur in May to prepare for the start of the cooling season on June 1st."

Lee notes that utilities across the state also roll up up their sleeves to pitch in alongside the CAAs and State LIHEAP office. Lee singles out the utilities as a consistently reliable partner in their effort to keep the lights on for as many families across the Yellowhammer state.

"The Alabama Business Charitable Trust (ABC Trust) partners with us and our sub-grantees to administer their utility assistance program during the Heating and Cooling seasons. This program is designed for households at 175% of the Federal poverty level. Our LIHEAP has been at 150% in recent years, so ABC Trust can assist those who are still low-income, but who exceed LIHEAP income eligibility requirements."

For instance, Alagasco (part of the Spire Company), offers the Dollar Help program during the Heating season. Initiated in the Fall of 2016, the program is aimed at assisting eligible households that received LIHEAP assistance in the Heating season and are not eligible to apply again. However, program guidelines state that if an income-eligible household is in disconnect status or already disconnected, they may apply whether they have received LIHEAP that season or not.

Newly Elected Governor Kay Ivy has demonstrated that the State House supports not only LIHEAP as a vital short-term solution to energy assistance, but in the longer term, that weatherization is given priority as well. Montgomery local Channel 8 reported in June 2017 that Governor Ivy was releasing $950,000 to help families with limited and fixed incomes, many of whom are elderly and disabled residents, struggle to pay higher utility bills in the hot summer months. 

"I am pleased that with these grants we will help permanently lower the energy bills for our most vulnerable residents by making energy-efficiency improvements to their homes, freeing up funds in their budget for other essentials like medication and food,” Governor Ivy said. 

Echoing Gov. Ivey's endorsement of weatherization's priority within her office, Manager Lee confirmed that "our LIHEAP office and the State weatherization Program are administered by the Energy Division at the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. We work closely together and understand the importance of weatherizing homes to reduce energy consumption which in turn can reduce the reliance on LIHEAP assistance. Our office allocates a portion of LIHEAP funds to weatherization each year to further that goal."

Manager Lee is always focused on the future, whether via energy independence or preparing for the coming winter heating season. She reasons such advanced-planning is necessary to navigate the possible threat, saying that "if funding is cut from current levels, we would need to decide if our goal would be to serve fewer households at the same benefit levels we use now or if we should reduce benefits to continue serving the same number of households that we have in past years."   

Translating that consequence into the real-life cost to those who are hit the hardest, she singles out "our vulnerable populations (elderly, disabled, small children) especially, many of whom are on fixed incomes and have medical conditions affected by extreme temperatures" during the summertime.   

Agreeing 100% with the shared opinion around the country among her colleagues and customers alike that "LIHEAP is a life-saving program," Lee closed our interview with the sobering note of truth that short of dying a heat-or-freezing-related death:

"Without LIHEAP, (these families) may have to decide between paying the electric/gas bill or buying necessary medication or even food."

 

States Sweat FY2018 LIHEAP Dollars Amid Scorching Summer Heat 

LIHEAP Funds

Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown

Even amid 100+ degree days, shivers still went down the collective spine of LIHEAP-dependent states waiting on word about FY2018 funding levels as the House of Representatives Appropriations sub-committee mark-up was underway in the Capitol. The fear was real and potent enough among constituents to command press coverage across the country, where headlines like the YORK Dispatch's front page "LIVING IN FEAR OF LOSING LIHEAP" reflected a sense of shared fear in communities like York where residents like 86-year-old Richard Perkins believe "it’s beyond my thinking that anyone could be that cruel."

 

State Governments were ready to bridge the gap and pick up the slack as they looked out over the possible forecast for the coming winter, as Maine Biddeford Rep. Martin Grohman wrote an editorial reassuring concerned voters that above and beyond the Federal funding, "we dedicated an additional $3 million a year to provide fuel assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to low income families with children."

 

The Scranton Times-Tribune, meanwhile, poetically quipped that while "it’s been very hot of late...the coldness coming out of Washington rivals a Northeast Pennsylvania January night." To try and combat the potential loss of funding as far in advance as possible, they spotlighted the efforts of Community Action organizations like the Scranton Lackawanna Human Development Agency, who "through LIHEAP and other related programs was able to develop public-private partnerships that leveraged nearly $500,000 in funding ... to help exhaust our ever-growing list of those who need this service."

 

The potentially devastating consequences of the threat of lost funding was on display when The Inquirer quoted an inner-city Philadelphia woman who "said she lost her full-time job when she became her sick mother’s primary caregiver. When she couldn’t keep up with her bills, she said, LIHEAP provided her some relief."  Commenting personally, this grateful recipient emphasized that as a life-line, "programs like LIHEAP help those who are the working poor.  If it were not for programs like LIHEAP … I would probably still be sitting in a house with no electricity.”

Her fear came in response to PA State LIHEAP Director Brian Whorl's warning that "as a result of the President’s proposal and the uncertainty that exists around the federal budget at this time, DHS is estimating that Pennsylvania will receive $153.7 million for the 2018 federal block grant," translating to "a 25 percent reduction in the fiscal 2017 allocation."  

 

Down South in Arkansas, Little Rock LIHEAP recipient Jamie Brown, whom Channel 4 News caught up with at the State Fair, where Brown was applying for assistance at a mobile station. The local NBC affiliate said that dozens of people in Pulaski County applied for utility assistance at the fairgrounds. Brown did not hide how big a difference the program makes in his life: "I was laid off, and I've got a friend living with me who's disabled... I'm really hoping they're going to help us with our electric bill."

 

In Knoxville, Tennessee, Director of CAC Housing and Energy Services, Jason Estes, focused on another pillar of the plan to help households who are temporarily dependent on energy assistance transition toward independence not merely through financial assistance, but equally education. Dir. Estes argued that education is hugely responsible for enacting change. "It's a life-changing way, you have to really change the way you do things. If you don't, no matter how much you replace things you're still going to have high bills. If you can change your behavior, it's really big."

Campaign Statement on House Spending Bill

Washington, DC – This afternoon, the House Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee passed a spending bill including $3.39 billion for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). This vote reflects funding levels consistent with FY2017 and, for many LIHEAP advocates, is a welcome number amid the current Administration’s call to eliminate all funding for the program.

The Appropriations bill will move to the full committee for consideration. The Senate Labor-HHS Subcommittee is anticipated to take up their version of the bill shortly. Final FY2018 LIHEAP investment will be resolved in negotiations later this year between the House, Senate and Administration.

LIHEAP is an efficient, targeted national program that provides temporary assistance to qualifying households, especially those with seniors, Veterans, individuals with disabilities or families with school-aged children, who are struggling with poverty and cannot keep their utilities on during the extreme cold of winter or heat of summer.

“As champions of the program, we commend the House for recognizing the importance of LIHEAP and standing up on behalf of the program through this appropriations bill,” said Michael Bracy of the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates on behalf of LIHEAP. “However, our work cannot stop here. The upcoming Congressional recess is the perfect opportunity to continue the conversation with our Representatives and Senators at home.”

 LIHEAP supporters have regularly called on Congress and the Administration to increase funding. The House’s proposal for flat funding is, in many ways, a victory for LIHEAP in an era of increasingly volatile negotiations and strained budgets. The proposed $3.39 billion funding level is enough to ensure the program continues in all 50 states, but it is not sufficient funding to expand the program’s reach to the millions of households that qualify for the program but do not currently receive assistance.

 To encourage and further promote the conversation around LIHEAP, the Campaign regularly connects with Congressional offices to provide state-based information and snapshots of how LIHEAP impacts families and local communities. The Campaign will continue to engage with policymakers on Capitol Hill and LIHEAP advocates across the country to educate individuals, families and lawmakers about the importance of LIHEAP for millions low-income families. For the latest news and information on LIHEAP, visit www.liheap.org.

Download a PDF of this press release.

June 2017 LIHEAP News Wrap Up

Extra LIHEAP Funding to the Rescue

Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown

LIHEAP Summer 2017

As Time Magazine warned that the heat waves sweeping the summer could lead to "extreme temperature conditions" and that heat strokes can "lead to a number of ailments or even death," the Federal Register offered a bit of welcomed news that unexpected additional LIHEAP funds totaling $3,253,866 were available to states, territories, tribes, and tribal organizations.

Demonstrating the diversity of communities who benefited from 2016's re-allotment, beneficiaries included a number of prominent Native American Tribal nations like Cocopah Tribe of Arizona, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Hoh Indian Tribe, Kalispel Indian Community of the Kalispel Reservation, Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point, Poarch Band of Creeks, Quinault Indian Nation, and Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, The Chickasaw Nation, and states like Arkansas, Georgia, and not surprisingly Vermont. 

Back East in Pennsylvania, the Energy Association of PA (EAoP) warned that Pennsylvanians should take precautions when working outside in the extreme heat. EAoP President and CEO Terrance J. Fitzpatrick added that “Pennsylvania’s energy utilities want to educate the public on how to stay safe...and avoid potentially hazardous situations."

Continuing to be a crucial component to surviving the sweltering Southern summers, states like  Arkansas were hard at work getting word out about the availability of summer LIHEAP assistance. Pine Bluff-Jefferson County's Economic Opportunities Commission broadcasted that they were open for business to take both regular and crisis grants to households in need of help keeping the temperature turned down.  

Meanwhile, the Southern Alliance of Clean Energy featured a guest editorial by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy's Senior Policy Advisor Lowell Ungar. In his piece, Ungar illustrated the true wide-ranging reach of LIHEAP as a positive force within the communities it serves, noting that federal energy efficiency programs programs support "the largest job creator in the US energy sector – energy efficiency – which accounts for at least 2.2. million jobs."

Underscoring the risks of the traditionally scorching summers that the state of Texas was battling, the Dallas County Health and Human Services announced they were aiming "to increase the efficiency of energy usage in a safe manner for eligible Dallas County residents in low-income households," specifically prioritizing those homes with "elderly/disabled residents and households with children that are 5 years of age and younger" because "statistics show they are the most vulnerable to the high cost of energy. " 

In California, a brave face of LIHEAP, Rodolfo Galvan, spoke up on the difference the program made this past winter. Galvan, who was one of 1,404 households the Santa Barbara Community Action Commission assisted last year to the tune of $425,000 in utility assistance, candidly affirming that "I feel so much more comfortable in my home, this winter has been so much warmer after receiving a new furnace."

Insider Perspectives: LIHEAP & More

Campaign team members Julie Beltz and Claire Krawsczyn spent the first half of the week with leaders from across the energy assistance field. Over three days, the Campaign talked with dozens of LIHEAP advocates who are working tirelessly to provide energy assistance to households in need. 

Now, more than ever, the Campaign is dedicating time and resources into spreading awareness about the program to Members of Congress, politicians, activists, and other key decision makers.

Below are some of Julie and Claire's notable insights from our partners on critical issues facing LIHEAP and the communities it serves:

  • Integrated work between community-minded utilities like DTE and on-the-ground organizations like The Salvation Army is critical to moving energy assistance programs forward in innovative ways.
     
  • Researchers such as Libby Perl of Congressional Research Service and Travis McAdam of LIHEAP Clearinghouse continually review LIHEAP data, facts, and figures to ensure the most relevant information is publicly accessible to improve both LIHEAP and the policies that guide it.
     
  • DTE is proving that utilities can expand their customer service efforts to include under-represented audiences. DTE recently launched an effort to connect with Michigan's deaf and hard-of-hearing populations through a video-based interpretation service, making communication and in-home service calls more effective.
     
  • LIHEAP does not operate in a vacuum. Issues affecting the country, including racism, poverty, and institutional inequalities, often impact low-income households more significantly than the general population.
     
  • In direct-to-consumer communication and advocacy efforts, consider using the phrase "income-eligible households" as opposed to "low-income households" to reach a broader audience.
     
  • In the current political climate, it is more important than ever to document the wide-reaching impact of LIHEAP and the reality that it serves only a fraction of eligible households. Data capture and analysis reaffirm the necessity of the program and enable program directors to be more strategic with funds.  

If you have questions or are interested in learning more about these insights, please don't hesitate to contact us. We would love to discuss!