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Federal program increases state funding

Winter in Western North Carolina has been relatively mild so far. But spring is weeks away, and it can still be mighty cold for those who can’t afford to heat their house.

As of Jan. 22, more than 3,700 low-income households in the western counties of North Carolina, where winters can be the harshest, have sought and received federal heating assistance from the Low Income Energy Assistance Program to keep their water pipes and themselves from freezing, new data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services show. As a whole region, more than $2.1 million had, as of mid December, been allocated for the program for the current fiscal year.

Statewide, that number reached nearly $24.7 million. That’s a big leap from the $17 million allocated in the 2012 fiscal year.

Still, program leaders said, available funds rarely go far enough. Go here for a resource listing of agencies providing heating assistance or referrals in each of the 18 Western North Carolina counties.

In fact, the weather, while certainly a factor in how much people must heat their homes in the winter, has little to do with how much assistance they can receive.

Each county’s department of social services agency receives the Low Income Energy Assistance Program funding, which provides for a one-time vendor payment to help eligible households pay their heating bills. Social services staff distribute the single payment to as many people as they can for as long as the county’s federal funding lasts.

In Buncombe County, the requests for funding have increased slightly so far.

“At this point last year, we helped 4,335 households with energy assistance, compared to 4,550 so far this year,” said Patricia Wallin, supervisor of Buncombe’s Low Income Energy Assistance Program.

Those households are also helped by additional emergency funds counties receive. In addition to the LIEAP funds, the Crisis Intervention Program is also a federally funded program that provides assistance to eligible households that are in a heating related emergency. Money approved from both programs is sent directly to the electric, gas or fuel oil company that supplies the household.

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The Buncombe County Department of Social Services has spent a total of about $1.2 million so far this year and has about $846,000 remaining in LIEAP funds, Wallin said recently.

Click to view full-size image. Peggy Manning/Carolina Public Press

When people can’t afford the cost of heating their homes yet don’t meet the eligibility for federal funds, DSS has additional emergency funds. When that runs out, DSS will refer people to nonprofit groups for help.

“We’re still helping families by providing 100 gallons of fuel oil, but the money goes very fast at $400 a pop,” said director Graham Doege, director of the Hospitality House of Boone. And, even though the warmer days the area has experienced thus far may help stretch heating resources, the problem is the need is still greater than the available funds, she said.

“Many people qualify for government help, but it’s a one-time shot, and they need help for more than one month,” she said.

Most fuel companies will not deliver less than 100 to 150 gallons. In most Western North Carolina counties, that amounts to around $400. Most low-income households can’t afford that, as the fuel must be paid in full upon delivery, and 100 to 150 gallons will not last the entire winter.

The Watauga County Department of Social Services helps with up to 150 gallons of fuel to eligible households. Last year, that meant 655 households received heating assistance from federal funds. So far this year, 529 have been helped from that pool of money.

“We have a condensed season for the energy programs,” said Director Jim Atkinson. “Some counties stretch their funds from summer to summer because they use them for cooling as well as heating. We generally get started around the first of November after the cold weather comes, and our fund run out in mid-spring because it stays cold longer in the mountains.

“We see most of our clients in that span of time. We usually get an additional allocation in mid-winter, which is good because we see most of our clients early in the season, and we begin to run short of funds in January.”

That’s when WeCan steps up to help those who still need help.

WeCan gave out $107,283 for heating assistance last year. That included Operation Roundup funds generated by contributions from Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation members.

The Watauga DSS shifted responsibility for distributing the Roundup funds to WeCan in 2011. Then, last year, New River Light & Power started a similar program and WeCan began distributing those funds as well. That brought the total available for heating assistance to $112,838.

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WeCan assists most of its clients with their electric bills or restoring electricity to their homes when they can’t pay their bills, Doege said.

Heating assistance is just a small part of what the Hospitality House of Boone does.  The organization has a shelter with 71 beds, and when temperatures fall below 40 degrees, 10 additional beds are made available.

“You can’t let people freeze,” she said.

While federal funding to states for heating assistance has increased, prices of fuel and electricity have also increased. In addition, the method in which people get help has changed.

Previously, those who qualified for food assistance automatically received heating assistance. Now, they must apply and be approved for that assistance separately.

“Last fiscal year, we had 449 applications approved for LIEAP and 1,245 applications approved for CIP,” said Carole Edwards, community resource unit supervisor for the Haywood County Department of Social Services.

So far this year, the agency has approved more than 200 LIEAP applications and more than 650 CIP applications.

“We still have funds available in both programs,” Edwards said.

Peggy Manning

Peggy Manning is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at pntmoody@bellsouth.net.

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