Charities Try to Keep Area Warm (Valley News)

By Erin Hanrahan
Valley News Staff Writer

Lebanon -- As the director of a nonprofit agency that dispenses heating fuel assistance, Joie Finley Morris said she expected her application pile to grow this summer, alongside the rising price of oil.

But as winter approaches and fuel prices remain high, other area charities -- including those not in the business of delivering warmth -- have grown equally concerned about a looming heating crisis.

Last month, representatives from more than 20 area nonprofits began an informal coalition to discuss what Finley Morris called an impending "perfect storm" of plight for the poor.

Conversations at the coalition's meetings so far have centered on consumer education and weatherization programs for area homes. Last Tuesday, Upper Valley United Way announced the group's first financial initiative, a $200,000 campaign drive for a special home heating aid fund, called Winter Assistance Resource Management (WARM).

Upper Valley United Way Executive Director Julia Hadlock likened the new fund to the special "emergency" initiatives that her agency put in place after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. "It is a crisis," she said. "It is a similar strategy."

United Way solicits donations from thousands of Upper Valley workers each year through forms distributed in paychecks, and Hadlock said those forms will now include a special section for WARM contributions.

The money will be used to help weatherize homes, educate consumers and pay for fuel, through area organizations such as Listen, COVER and Tri-County Community Action Program.

Finley Morris, who directs the Lebanon office of Tri-County CAP, said WARM will help her office extend heating help to a rash of new applicants, including some whose incomes are slightly above the threshold for government assistance. "Basically it's going to help us fill the gaps," she said. "People are in a panic."

Hadlock tracks calls to Vermont's three-year-old "211" social services line, and said queries for housing and shelter help doubled between June and July this year, in both Windsor and Orange counties.

"We're getting calls this year from older adults who have never accessed fuel assistance before," said Dana Michalovic of ServiceLink, a New Hampshire nonprofit that helps residents find services. "We're getting calls from people well into their 80s who are saying, ‘I'm really scared.'"

That fear may be brought on my fuel prices, but according to Finley Morris, "It's going to hit every agency in its own way." As money gets tight, she said, homelessness rises and food pantries are stretched. Safety issues crop up, as residents patch together space heaters.

"I don't think any of us have seen the kind of crisis on the horizon like we see now," she said.

The unparalleled scope of the anticipated heating crisis, though, has inspired an equally unique cooperative effort among diverse area agencies; including hospitals, faith-based groups, private nonprofits and government programs.

Greg Norman, interim director for community benefits at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, said he convened the first meeting of the loose coalition at the request of ServiceLink board member and N.H. Rep. Laurie Harding (D-Lebanon). For Norman, the hospital's involvement is natural.

"People may not make a direct link between the cost of home heating fuel and health care," he said, "but we'll begin to see people canceling appointments. They'll say they can't afford the gasoline to get to appointments, or we'll see people who can't afford to buy the prescriptions they need. We're pretty significantly concerned at this point in time."

Like Finley Morris, Norman has been involved in Upper Valley social services for more than 15 years, and during that time, he said he's seen plenty of cooperation among area agencies. But when he sent an e-mail asking nonprofit leaders to join his informal heating aid group this summer, the response was overwhelming.

"It was so immediate," Norman said yesterday. "Everybody in this group sees this as a crisis of large proportions in this area."