Our VOICES OF LIHEAP series continues with a spotlight on Maudwella Kirkendoll, Chief Operating Officer of Wisconsin-based Community Advocates, one of the primary partners in the Milwaukee County Energy Assistance Program. Kirkendoll’s work on the front lines of Wisconsin’s most vulnerable families offers a personal perspective on just how critical difference energy assistance makes in their daily lives.
Community action agencies have been historically interwoven as a part of America’s social contract. By connecting its programs and people with services, CAAs form a crucial crossroads where vulnerable citizens can turn for a helping hand when they aren’t sure where or to whom to reach out. In the case of St. Joseph, Missouri, famed as the beginning point of the Pony Express, the birthplace of Hip Hop superstar Eminem, the town of approximately 80,000 has seen its share of hard times.
Even with a poverty rate 21% below the national average, Community Action Partnership of Greater St. Joseph (CAPSTJOE) Executive Director Whitney Lanning highlights unique variations among the town’s LIHEAP population. Director Lanning notes that “our annual report information from just this past year shows that shows that about 68% of our families are working in some capacity...20% are elderly and disabled, on fixed incomes or unable to be working, and the other 12% of the people we serve are not working, but about half of those are actively searching for employment. So it’s a very small percentage that are not working, and contrary to the way low-income populations are often described. You can’t ignore the fact that low-income people are paying I think over 30% more in energy costs, and some families are spending half their income on their energy costs alone. So when you see that disparity, then LIHEAP becomes incredibly important for those individuals.”
Thriving 50 years after it first opened its doors to the public, CAPSTJOE is as vibrant as ever a presence in the community. "In a given year, we probably serve 4-5,000 individuals across our various programs," Dir. Lanning noted.
Slammed this winter with the kind of snow storms and cold fronts that make for busy days at the CAA, the St. Joseph Post reported continued cold weather storms and challenges. Consequently, Director Lanning predicts that the organization will "spend our money much faster this year than last year just because its been very, very cold here...We help our rural families with energy assistance, but also with fuel like propane, wood, wood pellets, so LIHEAP is addressing the energy and warming needs that are pretty vast and different for different areas.”
The town’s literal history presents Dir. Lanning and her staff with another unique challenge: most of the rental properties where her LIHEAP population resides “have all kinds of issues with them. St. Joseph is a very old town. In St. Joe’s alone, 43% of our rental units were built before 1960, so the cost of heating and cooling rental units that are that old and that also are very large are expensive. So until we can get a grasp on that, I don’t know how anyone can argue LIHEAP is not important or valuable or necessary.”
Along with the vulnerability of the buildings is that of the residents they house, who are often vulnerable to freezing-related deaths. To that end, the fact that LIHEAP funds can be administered remotely is a huge benefit to the community, and people can safely remain in their homes. "We have to verify that its you through certain processes, but you can mail in your application or you can have someone else bring it in, so that’s really beneficial for people who have mobility issues or transportation accessibility issues – especially those people that are homebound and rely on electricity for different medical devices. That’s something we definitely see that’s vitally important through this program to be able to address.”
To provide immediate local assistance, Dir. Lanning finds one of her organization’s most indispensable countermeasures is “the Energy Crisis Intervention Program, and in those situations, we actually have the funds the state has given us." Through two difference programs, the Energy Assistance (EA) and Crisis payments, local residents have access to LIHEAP support. In EA, CAPSTJOE does not disburse funds, but it helps individuals understand eligibility and complete applications. we don’t actually disburse the funds, we qualify individuals as eligible, and help them complete the applications. Under the Crisis Payments program, "if someone comes in with a shut-off or disconnect notice, we can get those payments made quickly. So we’ll call, make sure they’re eligible, find out their household size, those types of things, and then we’ll directly pledge on their account to make sure that those disconnects don’t go through, then we disburse the payment once that’s done.”
Keeping the buzz going locally about the program’s open door is a savvy, multi-tiered outreach campaign involving both social media and traditional word-of-mouth (tactics). Dir. Lanning and the CAPSTJOE team partner "with different entities in our service area. That’s one of the benefits we have is we’re in a small market of non-profits, so the other non-profits know what we do and how we do it so they can get individuals in need of help to us pretty quickly. So we don’t have such an issue where in April, there are these big unpaid bills piled up, and if they do, we work with them, and our vendors have been really good where if they know a family or individual is going to be assistance from us through our LIHEAP program, then they’ll work with them on the payment plan for the remaining balance for the most part. I think we’ve developed a good partnership in doing that.”
Building trust within a local community is crucial to the success of any Community Action Agency, and for Director Lanning, training her staff in a bedside manner that reflects that commitment has been key to the agency’s continued success throughout the years, confirming that “when they come in, we absolutely stress this importance to our staff and our staff are very good at being empathetic and being caring, and our staff are very caring, and they know that the people who walk through our front doors very well could be the worst day of their life, because I honestly feel it’s a factor of desperation that when you’re up against: ‘My kids being cold or family being cold and us not having electricity me going in and feeling humiliated,’ they’re going to pick warmth, and that’s sad that’s the way it has to be. They’re really in a state of desperation a lot of times.”
Serving a proud community of largely working families who pride themselves on their hard working history, the Director reveals that what she’s found time and again is “that people feel empowered by being self-sufficient. We have people who come in and they are so proud that they didn’t have to use LIHEAP last year, or they’re entitled to up to $800 for energy assistance and sometimes they use all of that in one disbursement or they can come in multiple times depending on whether we have funding available. So as an example, we’ll have elderly people who come in and say, ‘I only had to use $250 this year, and that kept me caught up, and I didn’t have to come back multiple times.’ So I think getting the public to understand: people want to pay their bills, they really do want to be able to do that for themselves because unfortunately, its not an easy or friendly process when you have to give your social security number, and all your kids, and anyone else living in your household, and your paystubs, and your food stamp information… That’s not always a pleasant process, even though we try to make it humanizing, it often times isn’t for people.”
Singing the praises of the program for how well its run on the ground within the community and then reported up the chain back to the state directors and then Federally to Washington, Director Lanning feels the efficiency with which LIHEAP is administered up and down the line is one of its most important assets, reasoning that “energy is no more a necessity than food, so why are we not getting behind more of these programs as they’re all basic necessities of people? But what I think you find with LIHEAP that we don’t see as much with other programs is they collect, analyze and report their data in a way that shows not only their impact but the usage and that you don’t see a lot of people abusing it the way people will say goes on with these types of services. That’s one of the things I think is so beneficial for this program is they’ve done an excellent job getting the data out there and being able to speak to it. Our programs are being used by people that direly need them and are working and trying to get ahead, so cudos to the LIHEAP program for being able to report that message and report it accurately.”
When reflecting in closing on what inspires her most about continuing to help the families who call or come walking through her doors each day looking for a helping hand, Dir. Lanning points to a satisfaction as basic as the services they’re helping those households provide, musing that “of course when we’re able to help someone that makes us very happy and gives us a sense of being able to see literally someone’s life get changed, coming in our door with a sense of despair and leaving feeling a little lighter, ‘Okay, I don’t have to worry about my kids not having electricity or my family having to go without heat in the cold.’ That is a wonderful thing.” Still, past the short term help programs like LIHEAP provide, looking out over the longer term, “I think it continues to bring to light the plight of the low-income population and how they are really, really struggling, and our political climate and society still hasn’t gotten on board with understanding that 68% of our families are working and they’re not even at 130% poverty, they’re under 100%, so the need for Community Action Agencies and other agencies like us to continue advocating for low-income people and really educating the public that this is not the poverty of the 1950s, this is a new age of poverty where people are working and are still unable to meet their basic needs. That’s really something that we’re focusing on that we need to advocate and educate communities and our elected leaders and really everyone we come into contact with about.”