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."