Writing and reporting by Jake Brown
Arkansas: World Headquarters of Walmart and Sam's Club. Birthplace of Johnny Cash and former two-term President William Jefferson Clinton. Home of Ozark and Hot Springs National Parks. And, like so many LIHEAP-reliant Southern states, dotted with a majority-rural populace across its vast landscape of bluffs, mountains and caverns, winding lakes, rivers and streams, forest pines and diamond mines.
Brandi Hinkle, Deputy Chief of Communications in the Arkansas Department of Human Services, shares her concern of the threat of LIHEAP elimination with thousands of urban and suburban families who rely on LIHEAP for assistance, especially with cold winter months on the horizon.
Giving readers an up-to-date look at the actual intake numbers, the Arkansas Department of Human Services shared the following chart to demonstrate the steady and increasing need for LIHEAP to support Arkansas families:
Local community action agencies are already feeling the increased pressure of the upcoming winter season. As with most states, agencies handle the bulk of LIHEAP outreach and applications. Deputy Chief Hinkle commended the agencies for their ongoing commitment to serving their communities, noting that "Arkansas numbers have increased over last years’ numbers." Deputy Chief Hinkle added that "the State of Arkansas and the Community Action Agencies have established a partnership to provide the LIHEAP clients a service designed to address the needs of our families. In order for us to achieve this goal, we must offer dedicated services with our low income communities in mind."
Arkansas's largest CAA, the Central Arkansas Development Council, which is famous for its "Mass Intake" days, staged a wildly successful awareness campaign at the Arkansas State Fair to reach out to rural customers. The agency also hosted urban events at the Arkansas Workforce Center of Little Rock to ensure urban populations were educated about the program and its benefits.
Across the Twin Lakes region of the state, Ozark Opportunities, Inc., continues to help thousands of Arkansas households. The 50-year-old agency served more than 3500 households in 2015 alone. Program coordinator Blaine Lawrence noted that despite changes in the political and state landscape, the application lines have remained steady and strong over the years.
The elderly remain one of the state's most active LIHEAP demographics. Deputy Chief Hinkle confirmed the simple truth that "without these funds available to families or households with elderly residents or individuals with disabilities, there may be an increase in the number of weather-related deaths."
Arkansas is home to a strongly-connected network running throughout community and retirement centers around the state, including the Schmieding Center for Senior Health and Education in Springdale, Arkansas. Tomiko Townley, Older Adult and SNAP Outreach Manager, Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, noted that organizations like Schmieding are working hard to connect to local seniors as well as "service providers and policy makers to fully understand how best to serve the aging population. Older adult issues need to be illuminated and demystified. The senior population in Arkansas will only continue to grow, and it is past time for the state to develop long-lasting strategies to eliminate hunger and food insecurity in the older adult population. There are many groups around the state doing amazing things for the older adult population suffering from food insecurity and poverty. Unfortunately, those supportive services are often centrally located, which makes it very difficult for seniors living in rural communities to access them...All invested parties to support and strengthen existing programs, including LIHEAP. Charitable organizations do not have the capacity to serve the entire senior population in need, but they have an important role in filling the gap between those eligible for programs and support."
With the state's utility providers kicking in a helping hand as well, Deputy Chief Hinkle confirmed the valuable partnership that exists within "the relationship between the Utility Suppliers and DHS is a community effort that ensures the success of Arkansas LIHEAP. There are some utilities that sponsor fundraisers, company donated proceeds, etc., to assist clients in lowing their energy burden and to help in the prevention of disconnects." Still, this year, cautioning that utilities were forced to raise their rates in 2017 as these "companies invest and improve their infrastructure," Arkansas' Attorney General Leslie Rutledge explained that asconsequence, "this may cause bills to be higher than expected and these expenses can become quite overwhelming and put some Arkansans in a dangerous situation."
Pointing to the most immediate remedy of relief available to struggling families around the state adversely affected by rising utility bills, A.G. Rutledge pointed her website's spotlight on "a number of effective and inexpensive ways to save money while making sure you and your families” keep the power on, including LIHEAP. Appreciative of her state's political backing of the LIHEAP program, Deputy Chief Hinkle stated that "the Governor’s office and Legislature is in support of the program," adding that to ensure every dollar is maximized to the benefit of those who most need the assistance, "the expenditure of these funds is approved and monitored by the Legislative Review Committee."
Weatherization has proven another strong ally in the state's effort to stretch every LIHEAP dollar as far as it can help, especially when the focus turns on future independence from energy assistance. "Weatherization is a very important component of LIHEAP for our families," Deputy Cheif Hinkle said. "Weatherization offers a more long-term benefit to those families as well as one you can see immediately after their services."
Many of the advancements in weatherization have come courtesy of inter-state agency partnerships, as well as through the kind of private and non-profit teamings that the Fort Smith Times Record highlighted between "an electric power and gas company cooperative program that provides free weatherization improvements to homes in the region cuts utility bills by an average of 30 percent and continues to push back the need for a new power plant. An average of $2,500 is spent on each home, and the power company recoups the loss within an 18- to 24-month time period by reducing the amount spent to produce the electricity."
Such cost-saving measures will continue to play an essential role in making sure as many homes' power stays on this coming winter as possible as uncertainty over the Federal budget threatens to potentially eliminate LIHEAP, meaning devastating implications for the "nearly 34,000 Arkansans who applied for assistance in heating and cooling their homes in 2016," Little Rock's KATV reported earlier this year. Feeling the presence of this looming threat all too really, the hard-working team at the state's LIHEAP office are working overtime to ensure everyone who applies for assistance receives it, even as Deputy Chief Hinkle acknowledges the all-too-real danger that comes with the reality that "depending on the amount of the cut, it could be a significant impact." For now, she remains optimistic, focusing on the positive difference the program continues to make in tens of thousands of "elderly, Individuals With Disabilities and Families with children" as "Arkansas' numbers have increased over last years’ numbers," and showing no signs of slowing as the cold winter season approaches...
Brandi Hinkle, MBA, APR | Arkansas Department of Human Services
Office of Communications & Community Engagement | Deputy Chief of Communications