Home energy assistance funds go quickly
FINGER LAKES—This year’s old-fashioned cold and snowy winter has given us more than the usual flu bugs and bone-deep aches and pains. For many, the bills for keeping warm cause distress, headaches and the need to balance costs for fuel and food.
“Obviously it’s colder than it’s been in the past but I think people expected it,” says Krista Coats, supervisor of the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) for Schuyler County. HEAP benefits for low income households paying their own heating costs range from $400 to $600, according to the information online. As anyone who’s paid a heating bill knows, all help is welcome—but many of us pay more than that HEAP assistance with every fuel bill.
HEAP eligibility guidelines are often described alongside information for those in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) because people eligible for SNAP are generally also able to receive HEAP benefits. These include low-income renters or home-owners, those who heat with a variety of fuels, and even may include people whose heating bills are bundled with their rent. There are also HEAP benefits which may be used in emergencies such as furnace repair.
“We have more people telling us they’re really trying to conserve,” Coats says. “People say they’re keeping the thermostat down and wearing additional layers of clothing to make the heat stretch longer.”
As in most years, the money each municipality is allotted for HEAP was quickly spoken for.
Amy Miller, Yates County Commissioner of Social Services says this winter, “Regular HEAP applications came in at a similar rate to last year—but we’ve had more emergency applications. People are telling me that they’re cold even at a reasonable ecological temperature setting. It’s just so much colder than it was last winter. It takes more oil or gas or wood or coal to maintain a regular temperature.”
State budget cuts meant Miller’s office lost the equivalent of one part-time employee, so processing applications has been taking longer.
Statewide, HEAP benefits began this year at the end of November, instead of at the month’s beginning as in previous winters. “So people couldn’t utilize the program until later, which carries their benefit further,” Coats notes.
Still, the cold weather is inevitably harder on some segments of the population. “Yesterday we received a phone call regarding an extraordinarily high gas bill, from someone who had exhausted their HEAP benefits and were out of fuel,” says Patty Secord of the Schuyler County Office for the Aging. “And local charities don’t have a boatload of money. There’s a “Project Share” heating fund —but it’s only for users of natural gas [the caller needed propane]. I don’t think anyone plans for this sort of winter. People are stressed by the cold and how they feel.”
Additionally, Secord says, the cold weather can be especially hard for seniors. “Their body systems may not work as efficiently as they once did, so cold affects them more, particularly if there are chronic illnesses or disabilities,” she says.
In December 2013, according to information provided by the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), in Schuyler County, 1,091 household shared non-emergency HEAP funds of $697,554.
In Yates County, 1248 households received HEAP assistance totaling $618,712. “I’m pretty sure I can’t recall a Mennonite family ever applying for HEAP or food stamps,” Miller notes.
In late February, Governor Cuomo announced plans to add $6 million in additional HEAP funds earmarked for those already receiving aid through SNAP. “The added money could benefit the county by allowing the HEAP program to stay in operation longer to allow more households to utilize it,” Coats says. “How long the program stays open depends on the funding. Right now March 15 is the last date for people to apply.”
“People are in emotional distress,” Miller says sympathetically, considering how the winter seems to make things worse for a segment of the population. “Fiscal times are tough, people are still not working where they may have been before the recession. People are in a tough spot when they’re coming in here.”
And hard as this winter has been, Coats says she hasn’t heard any more complaints this season than in previous ones. “Obviously it’s colder than it’s been in the past, but I think people expected it,” she says.