Agencies work to provide fuel assistance as winter comes early

By:  Patrick McArdle
Rutland Herald

Winter is still a month away, but Friday’s snow was evidence that the cold weather has already reached Vermont, providing what could be an additional challenge for those who struggle to pay heating costs.

Vermonters who already signed up for heating assistance have received their benefit if they need wood or wood pellets and should be receiving the benefit soon if they get bulk benefits like kerosene, oil or propane, according to Richard Giddings, director of heating and utility assistance programs for the Department of Children and Families.

But while the Fuel Assistance program is already in the process of unfolding, the Crisis Fuel program does not release benefits until Nov. 26.

Tom Donahue, CEO of BROC-Community Action in Southwestern Vermont, said community agencies like his are often able to provide help through donations and fundraisers such as the recent Wheels for Warmth program.

“Here we are with an early cold snap and basically, the furnaces are running. It’s only going to get worse this weekend. So what do you do between now and Nov. 26? That is where funds like Wheels for Warmth come in,” he said.

On Thursday, Donahue said he had just returned from Montpelier, where he learned that Rutland would receive almost $20,600, a record amount for the area.

“And thank goodness. Couldn’t have come at a better time,” Donahue said.

There are other funds available like the Warmth program supported by Green Mountain Power and its customers, and Ski For Heat, a fundraiser that takes place in the Manchester area.

Eileen Nooney, director of family and community support services for Capstone Community Action, which serves about 35 towns in Washington County and beyond, said this year, Capstone started tapping into the Warmth funding Oct. 22. She said that was a little earlier than usual but the help was needed because of the cold weather.

Since Oct. 1, Capstone has provided almost 200 fuel assists, which will total a little over $48,000, Nooney said.

Providing the help is complex. The state and agencies require an application process and neither the state nor the agencies provide Vermonters with money or fuel. Instead, they work with fuel companies who receive the money for a particular person’s benefit and the company delivers the fuel.

Donahue said the process can be complicated. Some people find themselves in need of heating fuel assistance without enough warning because they had to delay buying fuel in favor of groceries or medications.

But those who might need help are encouraged to contact an agency or the state before their fuel runs out to avoid an emergency delivery charge, which some fuel companies may apply.

When cold weather comes early, those people will reach out to agencies like BROC or Capstone for help. Nooney said the agencies try to address the issue as quickly as possible, especially if there’s someone in the home, like a child or elderly person, who is particularly vulnerable.

But at times like now, there is a need before the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, funding is available.

“Any assistance that we provide right now we do with kind of a patchwork of donated funds, or funds that are raised through events like Wheels for Warmth and that kind of stuff,” Nooney said.

The bulk of the funding comes from LIHEAP. Giddings said this year, Vermont got about $20 million from LIHEAP, a slight increase from the $18.9 million the state got last year.

Giddings said the state uses that block grant to serve as many people as possible.

In a statement, Sen. Bernie Sanders said on Friday that keeping a home warm in the winter is “not a luxury.”

“In fact, it can literally be a matter of life and death. That’s why federal fuel assistance is so important, especially for elderly Vermonters and families with children,” Sanders said. “I am pleased we secured a modest increase in funding for LIHEAP this past year, which means Vermont will receive a bump in funding this year. However, at a time when heating oil prices are going up and far too many families struggle every day just to make ends meet, Congress must adequately fund this critically important program that is still significantly below 2010 funding levels. That has got to change.”

In February, Sanders was among the Congressional leaders who opposed a budget proposal that could have eliminated LIHEAP.

Giddings, Nooney and Donahue said there is still time for Vermonters who find themselves with an unexpected fuel crisis to apply for a benefit either through their respective websites or stopping in at their office.

Sanders’ office provided links to a video and a document that provide more information about the assistance program and making an application at bit.ly/1117KeepWarm and bit.ly/1117Sanders

patrick.mcardle

@rutlandherald.com