By Elizabeth Eddy
As I drove home last Friday, I thought about what research I needed to do to write about LIHEAP, the low-income home energy assistance program.
As I waited at a Rutland stoplight, I noticed two things - a huge Humvee in the opposite lane and two homeless people slowly pushing their shopping carts down West Street. To me, this obvious economic disparity and evidence of waste and want prove there is a chasm, not a mere gap, between those who are safe and warm in this world and those who are not.
Skyrocketing fuel prices are the current flashpoint, but $100 car and truck fill-ups may be only the forerunner of what's facing all of us as this planet becomes less able to support the unsustainable, oil-soaked lifestyles of an exploding human population.
At this time each year, BROC - Community Action in Southwestern Vermont — is planning for the winter and preparing to help low-income persons buy fuel. Not only are we worried that we won't have enough financial resources to do this, but this year, we and everyone else are also wondering if there will be enough fuel to go around.
The specter of scarcity and the pain of paying high prices for basic needs have quickly become part of everyday life for most of us. Even though we still have access to food and fuel supplies, we can all envision that we could not. Certainly, the poor are the most vulnerable to any shortages in production and the uneven distribution of resources, both in Vermont and throughout the world. This will be made abundantly clear this year when cold weather hits.
BROC is one of five community action agencies in the state that help low-income persons attain self-sufficiency and independence via programming that promotes employment, small business development and energy conservation. Case management services and emergency assistance for food, housing and fuel is also provided.
Federal LIHEAP funds are channeled through the state into two pots — the seasonal fuel program, administered by the Vermont Office of Home Heating Fuel Assistance, and the crisis fuel program, managed by the CAAs. These, plus CVPS' Shareheat fund and the Warmth program, constitute the bulk of fuel grant funding available to Vermonters. Private charities and donations also help defray costs.
However, if fuel prices reach $600 for minimum deliveries and grocery bills follow suit, BROC and its partners will be hard-pressed to meet the needs of the poorest in our communities. In addition, OHHFA is expecting to receive several thousand additional applications this year, so seasonal fuel monies could be diluted into a larger pool and each eligible person could receive less. This will be very difficult for those living on fixed incomes — the elderly, small children and parents receiving Reach-Up, and the disabled. The OHHFA stated if the seasonal fuel program is level-funded at $11.6 million this winter, increased demand and usage could decrease individual benefits to $603 for the entire heating season, which would only buy about 120 gallons of fuel.
A single fuel delivery will not be enough to keep people safe this year. Last year, we heard heart-wrenching stories about people burning their dining room sets in their fireplaces or sleeping in front of their ovens to stay warm. No one wants to see refugees from the cold breaking into stores or second homes to spend the night, but there will be desperate people that the state's social service providers will be challenged to help, since most homeless shelters are full at present and may not be able to house any more people in upcoming months.
So yes, more money released for LIHEAP this year will help many persons who otherwise will not make it through the upcoming Vermont winter. U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders has proposed legislation to increase this funding, and the New England Governor's Conference and other advocates are also calling for this.
However, these requests should be accompanied by a continuing discussion and action plan about what we are going to do next year, the year after that and in upcoming decades. Sustainability is what we preach to our clients and is what we should be modeling ourselves, as citizens and organizations of Vermont. There is nothing more important than the creation of an energy plan that adequately addresses the needs of all persons, and does not rely on diminishing and polluting fossil fuels. Without this, we are only stringing together short-term solutions, and treating the symptoms of poverty, not the root causes.
I am no better able to pay $4 per gallon for gas than anyone else, and certainly am not overjoyed to do so, but I do know when the party's over. And when unbiased geologic experts says the world's oil supply is more than half gone and is not coming back, I believe them, not the oil salesmen who are masquerading as leaders in this country.
I cringe at the television ads featuring Exxon Mobil scientists (who remind me of the doctors employed by Philip Morris), who say there is plenty of oil, and encourage us to defy reality and fire up the SUVs. But desecrating our last pristine wilderness areas for a few more years of oil and decadent living will only defer the necessary adjustment to alternative power sources and make for an even shorter transition to a society that requires less energy.
All persons need to share this vision and work toward a joint solution, including low-income persons, who are often invisible in the political process or perceived as the problem. Everyone will be not able to erect a windmill on their property, but everyone can unplug their cell phone chargers, turn down the heat and caulk their windows, even if they live in a small apartment or room.
An important local source for energy conservation is the weatherization programs of the community action agencies, which offer auditing and insulating services that significantly reduce heating bills and consumption. These programs have demonstrated a direct economic and environmental impact throughout the state. This is just one example of the many environmentally sound initiatives that can help lower-income persons live more sustainably. Applications are available from local community action offices.
We can create a culture that lives more sustainably and halt climate change by believing this is possible and right, and by adopting this philosophy on every economic level. Living simply, even if you can afford a private jet, should be what everyone strives for.
I was talking to a World War II-era British citizen recently, and he recounted that their whole country scaled back their lifestyle cheerfully and universally during those years. They reduced their non-essential use of "petrol" severely, did a whole lot of walking and accepted the rationing of non-essential food items without much complaint. Similar measures were enacted in the United States, where residents raised huge Victory gardens, ate less butter and did their part. Luxuries were off-limits for everyone, and even those who could have afforded them did not indulge, because it was perceived as wasteful and unsupportive of the cause.
Those were certainly dark days, but so are these, and we may need to revive such traditions and create new ones that reduce consumption and thereby preserve peace and prosperity.
Elizabeth Eddy is community services and outreach manager for Community Action of Southwest Vermont.
By Elizabeth Eddy