By LISA RATHKE
BURLINGTON, Vt. -- With soaring fuel prices, and high food and housing costs creating a "perfect storm" for low-income households, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., vowed Thursday to fight for more federal heating, food and housing assistance.
"In many ways we are seeing a level of desperation right here in the state Vermont and I believe all over this country that has not been seen among lower income people for many, many years," Sanders said. "What we're seeing is that homeless shelters are now running out of beds because of a lack of affordable housing; we're seeing that food banks are depleting their supplies."
Sanders said the $2.6 billion Congress passed last month for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program known as LIHEAP, which he said is $400 million more than last year but 23 percent less than what Congress provided two years ago, is not enough, given escalating fuel costs and cold weather. He plans to push for an extra $800 million and the release of millions of dollars in emergency LIHEAP funding.
"If we do not make those increases you're going to see hundreds of thousands of Americans, including people here in the state of Vermont, not getting the heating assistance that they received last year and some of them will go cold," he said.
But heating oil, which costs an average of $3.30 a gallon in Vermont, up 74 cents from last year, and propane which has topped $3 a gallon, are not the only factors.
Hal Cohen, executive director of the Central Vermont Community Action Council, said the situation is "more desperate" than he's ever seen it in his 12 years with the low-income advocacy group.
So far this winter:
- $168,000 has been provided in heating assistance - more than double the amount provided in the last three months of 2006.
- nearly 300 families have received help with housing, up from just over 200 families during the same period in 2006.
- the number of homeless families being served by the council's Morrisville office has increased from 14 in the last three months of 2006 to 32 a year later.
- 1,619 families have accessed the food shelf, a jump of 130 percent over the same time in 2006.
"It's like a perfect storm," Cohen said. "We have higher fuel and higher gasoline prices, we have higher housing costs, we have higher food costs. And I believe the driving factor is really energy costs, is gasoline and heating fuel."
Sanders said he believes the LIHEAP proposal has strong bipartisan support, but the concern is if the Republicans filibuster, which would require 60 votes to overcome.
"My suggestion has been and will be to the Democratic majority and leadership, if they want to filibuster, let 'em filibuster. Let's keep that place going 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Let's be prepared to take them on, let the American people have a better understanding of what's going on," he said.
Sanders said he also plans to work with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, to pass an additional $40 million for emergency food assistance and collaborate with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to enact the Farm Bill, which would include an additional $6 million to Vermont through an expanded Food Stamp program and aid for the state's food banks.