Mid-Coast heating assistance high on demand, low on supply
BRUNSWICK — Heating assistance programs are struggling to meet the demand from households that need help.
Maria Hinteregger, who as associate director of community impact for United Way of Mid Coast Maine helps compile a list of heating assistance programs in the Mid-Coast area, called the situation "dire."
"In whatever community you live in, there are people who need fuel assistance," Hinteregger said Tuesday, "and the programs that fund them may no longer have those funds or are in danger of no longer having those funds."
Warm Thy Neighbor, a donation-based program run by Tedford Housing in Brunswick, has an $8,000 gap in donations and 16 families on its waiting list. Tedford officials said they're also hoping to raise an additional $10,000 as a reserve for next winter.
When the program was entering the 2011-2012 winter season last year, the program had $34,000, according to figures provided by Tedford Housing. One year later, it started with about half as much, a little more than $16,600.
"We really hope that donations will increase," said Susan Wygal, Tedford's interim director of development. "You can't spend money you don't have, and that's the situation we will be in."
Warm Thy Neighbor serves Brunswick, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Durham, Harpswell, Lisbon, Lisbon Falls, and Topsham as a "source of last resort," according to Craig Phillips, Tedford executive director.
But he said because the state General Assistance program and federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program also are seen as a last resort, it's "putting more pressure on Warm Thy Neighbor" to provide assistance earlier in the season, rather than later.
In addition to high fuel prices, Hinteregger said strict eligibility requirements for the state's GA programs and limited assistance available from LIHEAP also lead more people to seek help from other programs like Warm Thy Neighbor.
She said the average LIHEAP benefit for a household was nearly cut in half over the past three years, from $860 in the winter of 2010-2011 to $463 this year.
According to the figures provided by Hinteregger, that leaves LIHEAP households with an average of about $3,300 to pay for heating expenses this winter – a reason many of them are turning to programs like Warm Thy Neighbor, which can be more flexible with eligibility requirements, while still requiring proof of financial need.
Hinteregger said the high demand and low supply is systemic through the entire Mid-Coast region, which has caused some programs to push for more donations through public outreach.
"Some of the organizations have started to turn people away," Hinteregger said, "and some organizations that have participated in fuel assistance last year have discontinued doing so because it's too huge of a financial commitment."
According to the Governor's Energy Office, average heating oil prices have increased from $2.10 a gallon in March 2009 to $3.74 a gallon for January 2013. The price has fluctuated before and during that increase, but the most recent average is seen as relatively high.
An average LIHEAP household uses 1,080 gallons of heating oil a year, according to recent figures from Hinteregger, which means that at current heating oil prices the annual bill would be about $4,000.
Programs like Warm Thy Neighbor come in to cover the amount unavailable from LIHEAP or GA. Except Phillips and Wygal said it's hard to accept more families right now because of their funding gap.
When families think they have nowhere else to turn to keep their house warm, Phillips and Wygal said, the negative effects for a cold house could ripple.
"People are at risk of incurring either new health problems or existing health problems worsening," Phillips said. "There's concern about young people living in an unstable environment and what effect that has on their education. The elderly population doesn't reach out easily and that could exacerbate any type of illness."
Wygal said that some people will "resort to unsafe means of heating their homes," like leaving an over door open, using dirty fireplaces or becoming too reliant on space heaters.
"So there is a ripple effect of not being able to heat your house in this kind of really cold weather," Wygal said. "It's different if it's 45 degrees out and you just want to take the chill off. This is dangerous cold."
Instead of resorting to these unsafe methods of heating the house, Hinteregger said people should call 211, a 24-hour statewide directory run by United Way that provides a list of nearby services.
Hinteregger said people should try to plan ahead and have a good idea of when they will need heating fuel again, because it could become more costly – aside from the obvious danger of living in a cold home.
"It costs more to fill when they've run empty because there's a refill charge," Hinteregger said, "and there might be an extra charge because the truck is not going out on a delivery route."
Phillips said there are other factors that have caused financial strains for programs like his: the fact that many donation programs are competing for everyone's dollar is one, but it also has to do with public's perception of how everyone is faring in the economy.
"I thnk we're still trying to help this community understand the depth of increasing poverty and people's inability to pay their basic bills," Phillips said.